The videos below are philosophical dialogues, first with the artist and YouTuber Mike Vahl and second with Professor Corey Anton. Both a relevant preface for the third video on pluralism and process-relational cosmology, which is largely a response to the recent blogosphere pluralism wars:
Adam Robbert of Knowledge-Ecology has summarized some of the distinctions that emerged these past few weeks in the ongoing discussion on pluralism. Adam warns against collapsing the three sorts of pluralism (worldview pluralism, epistemological pluralism, and ontological pluralism), as to do so would result in the nastiest sort of relativism (“reality is whatever you make it”).
Adam succeeded in luring Isabelle Stengers to intervene in the cross-blog discussion. Go check it out.
There’s been quite an uproar recently across the philosophy blogosphere regarding the possibility of a pluralist ontology (see Critical Animal’s recap of this cross-blog event). The multitude of angles being offered got me thinking, and eventually sent me back to William James’ A Pluralistic Universe, from which I quote below (lecture 1):
The theological machinery that spoke so livingly to our ancestors, with its finite age of the world, its creation out of nothing, its juridical morality and eschatology, its relish for rewards and punishments, its treatment of God as an external contriver, an ‘intelligent and moral governor,’ sounds as odd to most of us as if it were some outlandish savage religion. The vaster vistas which scientific evolutionism has opened, and the rising tide of social democratic ideals, have changed the type of our imagination, and the older monarchical theism is obsolete or obsolescent. The place of the divine in the world must be more organic and intimate. An external creator and his institutions may still be verbally confessed at Church in formulas that linger by their mere inertia, but the life is out of them, we avoid dwelling on them, the sincere heart of us is elsewhere. I shall leave cynical materialism entirely out of our discussion as not calling for treatment before this present audience, and I shall ignore old-fashioned dualistic theism for the same reason. Our contemporary mind having once for all grasped the possibility of a more intimate Weltanschauung, the only opinions quite worthy of arresting our attention will fall within the general scope of what may roughly be called the pantheistic field of vision, the vision of God as the indwelling divine rather than the external creator, and of human life as part and parcel of that deep reality.
As we have found that spiritualism in general breaks into a more intimate and a less intimate species, so the more intimate species itself breaks into two subspecies, of which the one is more monistic, the other more pluralistic in form. I say in form, for our vocabulary gets unmanageable if we don’t distinguish between form and substance here. The inner life of things must be substantially akin anyhow to the tenderer parts of man’s nature in any spiritualistic philosophy. The word ‘intimacy’ probably covers the essential difference. Materialism holds the foreign in things to be more primary and lasting, it sends us to a lonely corner with our intimacy. The brutal aspects overlap and outwear; refinement has the feebler and more ephemeral hold on reality.
From a pragmatic point of view the difference between living against a background of foreignness and one of intimacy means the difference between a general habit of wariness and one of trust. One might call it a social difference, for after all, the common socius of us all is the great universe whose children we are. If materialistic, we must be suspicious of this socius, cautious, tense, on guard. If spiritualistic, we may give way, embrace, and keep no ultimate fear.
The contrast is rough enough, and can be cut across by all sorts of other divisions, drawn from other points of view than that of foreignness and intimacy. We have so many different businesses with nature that no one of them yields us an all-embracing clasp. The philosophic attempt to define nature so that no one’s business is left out, so that no one lies outside the door saying ‘Where do I come in?’ is sure in advance to fail. The most a philosophy can hope for is not to lock out any interest forever. No matter what doors it closes, it must leave other doors open for the interests which it neglects.
I must admit that a similar Jamesian existential need for intimacy is the common source of my panexperiential ontology, my aesthetic ethics, and my process theology. My enactive epistemology follows from a commitment to the sort of precursive trust that makes it possible to learn from my transactions with reality (=other beings). This means it is possible to be mistaken: to be mistaken is to fail to learn from a transaction with others. To learn from my transactions is to be in right epistemic relation with others. Learning becomes knowing as alliances between vastly different beings are built and maintained. The possibility of learning implies that my knowledge and the others I am trying to get to know remain always incomplete one to the other. I acknowledge from the get go that my knowledge of you could only ever be partial. So long as you do the same, we can continue to grow together, to learn from each other. But as soon as I pretend to know you entirely, in your true reality, learning ceases. I disown you, I steal your otherness and make it mine.
We do not come upon nature (=other organisms) as complete in itself, with a duty to unveil its truth. Nature loves to hide, to wear masks. She plays with us. Getting to know her requires more than just taking her at face value. We’ve got to play along to understand how she works, since who are we but more of her masks? Human knowing is not individual minds accessing a pre-given truth about reality; human knowing is composing a common world with others, most of whom are not human. Our knowing and our being is a “choreography of coexistence,” as Francisco Varela called it.
Below is a video I recorded 2.5 years ago while reading Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead.
I dwell in particular on her reactivation of the Jamesian notion of precursive trust. I also discuss enactivist epistemology, which may help clarify my remarks above.
Here is the essay on Stengers and Whitehead I refer to at the end of the video: Thinking Etho-Ecology with Stengers and Whitehead.
Levi Bryant recently called for a cross-blog discussion concerning what he perceives to be the problematic relationship between ethnographic pluralism and ontological realism. His call was instigated by Jeremy Trombley’s post on the so-called “ontological turn” in contemporary anthropology and ethnography. Trombley articulated what might be described as an ontology of the concept, wherein concepts are not representational frames that mirror (or fail to mirror) the world, but participatory interventions that dis- and/or re-assemble our thoughts and practices. Trombley writes:
“a concept or conceptual assemblage – ontology, feminism, queer theory, post-colonial theory, etc. – enables us to understand differently, and in understanding differently, it enables us to also be differently… What the ontological turn does is…[allow] us to reflect not only on the way we represent, but on the way that we exist and the kinds of relations we compose through our practices.”
Before I get into what such an anti-representationalist ontology of concepts does to our understanding of Truth (hint: Truth is not pre-given but enacted), I should mention a few other bloggers who have already jumped into the conversation. Phillip of the blog Circling Squares (which I need to explore more!) responded to Bryant’s original post by pointing out that thinkers like Latour and Stengers (and Whitehead before them) have been articulating a rather robust form of pluralistic realism for some time now (i.e., cosmopolitics). Terence Blake of Agent Swarm also chimed in, arguing that Bryant’s “realism” seems to be no more than old-school scientism, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it is so difficult to square with pluralism.
Bryant believes that the social constructionist turn of the 90s was politically valuable in that it improved the social standing of many oppressed minorities. But he rejects what he perceives to be the extension of such constructionism beyond politics into ontology. Bryant writes:
“In arguing that everything is a social construction, the pluralist undermines the possibility of public deliberation about truth. Everything becomes an optional narrative or story about the world, an optional picture of reality, where we are free to choose among the various options that most suit our taste. It’s not a surprise that so much of the philosophy during the 90s in both phenomenology and post-structuralism culminated in a theological turn. For where everything, including science, is just a narrative or story about what being is, why not just go ahead and take a leap of faith?”
I’m not sure if Bryant intends to include cosmopolitical thinkers like Latour and Stengers in his punching bag category “social constructionist.” I don’t understand how he could. If he does insist on labeling them as such (which seems to me to just obscure their true positions–but if he insists…), then, building on Whitehead’s categoreal scheme, I’d retort that “society” for these cosmopolitical thinkers has to be understood in the most general sense as an ontological category, not simply a human “construct.” The human organism is already a society of cells, each of which is itself a society of organelles, each of which is a society of molecules, each of which is a society of atoms, each of which is a society of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and so on… Realities are decomposed and recomposed by associations between and among actual occasions–occasions which are never simple unities but are always multiple and so always “in the making.” Which brings me to the concept of “construction”: if we are working within a process ontology, construction also needs to be ontologized. Biological evolution is a gradual process of construction wherein what begins as psychological desire later becomes physiological reality (to take the example of evolution by sexual selection). The physical world is itself continually constructed by what physicists are now calling “geometrogenesis.” This is not to say that the physical world is a human construct, mind you. The picture that is beginning to become clear as a result of contemporary physical cosmology is that space and time are the co-emergent products of the real activity of pure energy, something both non-human and pre-physical/pre-extended (Whitehead called it Creativity; physicists call it the quantum vacuum). If the physical world (as described by contemporary physics) is a network of relations always “in the making,” and not some collection of pre-given particles obeying eternal laws, then a “true” understanding of it must also always remain open-ended. There is no Science or Universal Reason that might once and for all pronounce upon the nature of the Real. There are many sciences, many methods, many rationalities. Science as it is actually practiced now and in the past has always already been a pluralistic enterprise. As Latour showed in Science in Action, what ends up being called “Nature” is always a consequence of some more or less temporary settlement of controversies. Every new generation of scientists stirs up new controversies about what the aging generation thought was settled.
The cosmopolitical perspective that I’d want to defend certainly does not “undermine the possibility of public deliberation about truth”–it is (once we accept an enactivist account of truth) the condition of its possibility! It is Bryant’s position that rules out such public deliberation by insisting on declaring war on all those human societies that reject materialism. Latour has plenty to say about the vacuity of the notion of “matter,” which I’ve discussed elsewhere and won’t get into here. Accepting a cosmopolitical form of ontological pluralism doesn’t at all require that we think of all beliefs and belief-systems as created equal. Nor does it imply that social groups “freely choose” their beliefs simply as a matter of “taste.” The ontological commitments of any given society typically emerge out of long multi-generational processes of historical development. They aren’t just made-up on a whim by individual members. Further, the world view of a social group is as integral to their their livelihood and well-being as their food, shelter, and water, not simply an optional aesthetic veneer. As Trombley suggested, belief-systems enact ways of being and are not just representations.
Ontological pluralism is a commitment to multiple realities, many of which overlap, but some of which remain (at least for now) irreconcilable. It is not a commitment to tolerance of multiple perspectives on a single reality. This latter option, as Bryant points out, would be a rather trivial form of pluralism. It is also a rather colonialist and scientistic take on the Real. Anyone trying to argue that contemporary science has somehow provided us with a unified account of an objective reality that holds true for all people in all places and times has their work cut out for them. Several hundred years of “modern” science has only succeeded in making the world stranger, more dangerous, and more multifarious than it was for ancient and medieval peoples.
Am I saying that a ayahuasca shaman’s encounter with the spirit of the jaguar is just as real as the particle physicist’s encounter with the Higgs boson? Yes, most definitely. In fact, the shaman’s encounter is way more concrete and direct than the physicist’s, since the latter has to wait for a world-wide network of supercomputers to process the information for him, which only after many repeated trials, journal publications, and so on becomes what most (but not every!) physicist will agree is something like a Higgs boson. Even after all this painstakingly detailed mediation (“science in the making”), the Higgs boson remains now and forever a theoretical construct. The ayahuasqueros’ encounter with the jaguar spirit is anything but. Sure, a cognitive neuroscientist might claim to be able to explain the shaman’s experience as a “brain malfunction” brought on by the ingestion of a psychedelic plant brew. But this remains a reductive etic description and not a complete explanation. The neuroscientist should participate in an ayahuasca ceremony for himself before he goes declaring war on the shaman. At least, this is what a pluralist ethics would entail. Such shamanic practices have functioned quite well in their own tribal context for thousands of years. Instead of assuming from the get go that anyone who doesn’t describe the world in your favored language is deluded, try to get to know them, to understand not only what their world is like, but how their world is brought forth. Follow the injunctions through which they enact their world. Then, once you’ve explored it from the inside, by all means judge their enactment, contest it, translate its features into other terms to show why it is unethical, dangerous, or misguided.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from an essay of mine on the ethical implications of enactivism and the need for a pluralistic planetary mythos (Logos of a Living Earth):
One consequence of the enactive approach is that the Cartesian quest for epistemological certainty becomes but the expression of a particular cognitive domain made possible by the abstract languages of mathematics, precise measurements of machine technologies, and controlled laboratory environment. If the nervous system is operationally closed, its function cannot be to modestly mirror an external, objective reality, even if the modest witnesses are highly trained scientists allied with powerful instruments that extend their sensory reach. The operational closure of the nervous system forestalls a representational account of its activity, as its role is maintaining coherence, rather than correspondence, between organism and environment. New techniques may open up previously hidden worlds, as when Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky and revealed the moons of Jupiter in 1610, or Hooke first recognized cells through a microscope in 1665, but one cannot speak of finally discovering the real as if it existed independently of our bodily and inter-bodily experience of its meaning.
As Haraway has suggested (p. 199, 1997), “…objectivity is less about realism than about intersubjectivity.” She yearns for us to come to see objectivity as a way of “forming ties across wide distances” (ibid.), instead of as the privileged and modest perspective of self-invisible European men who remain somehow unpolluted by their ambiguously situated bodies (p. 23-32, ibid.). If science can claim relative epistemological privilege, it is not the result of transcending culture, but of the ever-accelerating, ever-expanding mobility and combinability of the traces scientists and their cyborg surrogates have constructed within their networks. Outside of these special networks of labs, machines, shared languages, and centrally controlled policy initiatives, scientific facts have little relevance. As Latour put it, “we might compare scientific facts to frozen fish: the cold chain that keeps them fresh must not be interrupted, however briefly” (p. 119, Latour, 1993).
I’ve just submitted my dissertation proposal for review. Click on the title below for the PDF.
I welcome suggestions, critiques, sources, and/or extensions.
Basically, I’m doing a comparative study of the philosopher Friedrich Schelling, the esotericist Rudolf Steiner, and the mathematician and cosmologist Alfred North Whitehead. In particular, I want to interpret their respective “etheric” ontologies (Schelling’s “world-soul/universal organizing principle,” Steiner’s “etheric formative forces,” and Whitehead’s “evental ether/Creativity”) as typical of the process-relational imagination.
The plate above, a painting of the Philosopher’s Tree, is from Splendor Solis, an alchemical treatise published by Solomon Trismosin in 1582.
Steven Craig Hickman recently posted a fascinating commentary on the fantasy writer R. Scott Bakker’s “Blind Brain Theory.” I’ve offered several of my own commentaries in the past (see HERE). My general sense of unease seems to be shared by Hickman, who ponders towards the end of his post whether Bakker’s BBT might be more of a prediction of our post-human future than a description of what remains of human being in the present. This is unnerving to me because I worry that mistaking a prediction for a description only serves to contribute to the realization of what I find to be a nightmarish future. Bakker argues that his thesis–“that what we call ‘consciousness’ does not exist at all, that we ‘just are’ an integrative informatic process of a certain kind, possessing none of the characteristics we intuitively attribute to ourselves”–is so disturbing that it remains unbelievable, even to him. Of course, there’s more than a bit of irony in his claim not to believe BBT himself: his whole point is that “beliefs” and the “selves” we think hold them are just sophisticated shams.
While for obvious reasons it is difficult if not impossible to actually experience oneself as a blind brain, the common sense theoretical account offered by most educated people nowadays is some variety of mind-to-brain reductionism. Nowadays we are all more or less materialists (as Obama’s recent “Brain Initiative” press conference brought home for me). Or we are unacknowledged dualists: we say the universe is just purposeless material in motion, while by some cosmic accident the moving matter of our nervous systems gained the capacity for self-reflection. While I admit that is some irony in some of his statements, I’d have to classify Bakker as an unacknowledged dualist. He is offering a “theory,” after all. How is theorization even possible if we are really just blind brains? Isn’t theorization just an illusion like everything else that takes place in consciousness? If consciousness can’t be trusted, why should we trust any theory, much less one that tells us our capacity for theorization is an utter fraud?
As I’ve come to understand it, consciousness is a perfectly real factor in the universe. It makes a difference in what happens next, at least for human beings and some other animals. I don’t conceive of it as a substance or a “thing” that exists separate from the body, driving it around like a go cart (i.e., it is not a res cogitans). It is, rather, a very special, high grade achievement of the more generic energetic activity making up the whole cosmos. I follow Whitehead the panexperientialist here (who Hickman also references in his post) by arguing that the most fundamental activity of the universe is already experiential, already in some sense “there” for itself. Consciousness, in other words, is a very sophisticated form of experience made possible by the organizational complexity of animal nervous systems. While all consciousness is experiential, not all experience is conscious. The less complexly organized (or “informationally integrated”) a system is, the less intense its experience. Another way to think about experience here is to put it in temporal terms. More complex organisms are capable of deeper experiential realizations because their nervous systems grant them access to thicker slices of time. For example, the temporal reach of human beings into the actual past or potential future is in principle nearly unlimited: it cannot be known in advance how far into the past (e.g., cosmologists have already reached to the edge of space-time 13.8 billion light years away) or future (e.g., think of the most imaginative sci-fi writers) the human mind can reach. On the other hand, the temporal reach of a hydrogen atom is rather narrow: it inherits its past and is launched into its future almost instantaneously, with very little opportunity for creative variation. Still, though, this opportunity to vary is there from the beginning. There are no instants in nature. Duration goes all the way down. Even hydrogen hesitates. There is a crack in causal transmission at the most fundamental levels of physical reality, an experiential gap that must be leapt. Nothing is absolutely determined or fixed in advance. The universe is radically creative and open ended. It’s for this reason (which follows from 20th century quantum and complexity theories) that Whitehead chose to aestheticize causality, to insert experience into every nook and cranny of the cosmos.
Whitehead’s experiential universe, as radically creative, is radically evolutionary. Every seemingly stable form of organizational achievement is subject to further change, either for the better or for the worse. In Whitehead’s aesthetic ethics (or aesethics), “better” would mean more beautiful, where beauty is defined as the harmonization of contrasting particulars into an organic whole, such that both the parts and the whole are enhanced in the process. My worry, again, is that believing in the blind brain theory can actually do damage to our human potential as consciously creative beings. We are all too ready nowadays to resign ourselves to the mechanical way of life demanded by techno-capitalist society. The only way to fight back against the reduction of human life to the blind machinations of the marketplace is to empower imagination. As Robert Richardson, Jr. says in his biography of Emerson, “It is not imagination that commonly masks reality; it is routine.” If the human soul is in fact a processual achievement and not, as was long thought, an eternal substance, then it must be made, and, once it has, can be unmade. Soul-making is a sort of theurgy; its what humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years; it is the very basis of culture. When we stop ritually enacting our souls, we lose them. We become blind brains.
Maybe this all sounds very conservative to some of my readers. Maybe it is. I’ll grant that their are conceptions of human consciousness that are overblown (e.g., the medieval notion of an eternal substance, the Enlightenment notion of an autonomous free agent, etc.): our agency is restricted, our memory faulty, our grasp of the massive emotional backdrop encompassing conscious attention is severely limited. But unless we take the admittedly wavering power of our consciousness seriously enough to continue ritually invoking it, extending it, experimenting with it, then the evolutionary achievement it represents (13.8 billion years in the making), along with the adventure of civilization, will come to an abrupt end. Yes, I know, the end is inevitable in any case: the Sun will eventually explode and swallow us all. But again, from a Whiteheadian aesethical perspective, it isn’t a question of if it will all end some day, but of how it will end. My own aesthetic tastes and moral proclivities lead me away from the post-human machinic future imagined by Bakker. Its not that I see such a future as impossible; its rather that I don’t see it as a necessary or desirable future. The way we talk and theorize about ourselves has a big role to play in what we in fact become. BBT is itself a form of ritual technology. It changes us as we begin to think it, as its logic infects us. If it is true, as Isabelle Stengers’ writes in her study of Whitehead, that “no thinker thinks twice,” then we must think more carefully, lest we become other than we want to be.
…Morality does not indicate what you are to do in mythological abstractions. It does concern the general ideal which should be the justification for any particular objective. The destruction of a man, or of an insect, or of a tree, or of the Parthenon, may be moral or immoral… Whether we destroy or whether we preserve, our action is moral if we have thereby safeguarded the importance of experience so far as it depends on that concrete instance in the world’s history.”
-Whitehead (Modes of Thought)
Here is the audio of my presentation at the IWC last week in the philosophy of religion section:
Here is a PDF of the paper I read, titled “Worldly Religion in Whitehead and Deleuze: Steps Toward an Incarnational Philosophy”
- 9th Annual International Whitehead Conference in Kracow, Poland (footnotes2plato.com)
Also, thanks to Leon over at afterxnature.blogspot.com for posting my presentation, as well.
I’m headed back to Black Rock City for the 3rd time in 4 years later this week. I’ll be camping with Cosmicopia at 7:15 J if you want to stop by. I’ll be giving a brief talk on the need to ecologize economics on Tuesday at 11am. The title of the talk is actually a set of related questions: “Why is the sky blue? Why is money green?” The sky is blue because of the way Earth’s atmosphere scatters the light streaming in from the Sun during the day. At night, the sky turns black to reveal the swarm of distant suns populating the Milky Way. All the energy powering the human economy, and the greater part of the intelligence engineering it, originated in the sky. The daytime Sun is the most important source of free energy for all living things, while for one species in particular (ours) the rhythmic revolutions of the nighttime stars served as the catalyst for the evolution of symbolic consciousness (some of the earliest known forms of writing, for example, are marks carved into bone, apparently to count the phase cycle of the moon). Gazing at the stars and planets circling overhead night after night taught us how to keep track of time and how to travel long distances over land or sea. Our ability to plan months and years in advance, to draw maps and send satellites into orbit: we owe it all to the stars. And to the Sun we owe our very life, our vitality, our source of absolutely free energy. The original biotic economy of Earth (here long before the emergence of the human economy) consists of two main economic actors: the Sun and the photosynthesizing plants. This cosmic economy is the original gift society. The Sun is slowing burning itself up to release the warmth and light necessary for life on Earth. It asks for nothing in exchange for its exuberance. Plants absorb this free energy, transforming themselves into food for the rest of the biosphere all the way up the trophic ladder to Earth’s apex predator, the human being.
American money (at least for a little while longer the world economy’s gold standard), like plants, is green. Perhaps this is just a coincidence, but if we consider the capitalist world system as a form of sorcery (as Isabelle Stengers does), then this choice of color reflects the extent to which money has been fetishized, as though the symbolic power of green paper was somehow a replacement for the photosynthetic energy captured by the leaves of plants. General purpose money truly is the life blood of global capitalism; but plant-like it is not. It should be printed red, instead. That would remind us how much blood has been spilled on its behalf.
Political ecologist Alf Hornborg (author of “The Power of the Machine”) describes general purpose money as an “algorithm of destruction” because of the way it systematically cancels the living diversity of both culture and nature by converting usable energy (labor, soil, minerals, trees, rivers, etc.) into disposable products sold in order to make more copies of itself. For this reason, an increasing GDP is typically a great indicator of decreasing societal and ecological well-being. Global capitalism is converting more and more of the free energy brought into the biosphere by plants into money. To date, geneticist David Suzuki estimates that the global economy has re-directed about 40% of the net energy intake of plants to serve its higher purposes (i.e., accumulating money). Its no wonder the planet is entering the 6th mass extinction.
In my talk at Burning Man, I hope to make apparent how incongruent the human economy currently is with the earth ecology. I also want to begin a discussion about the role of Burning Man in all this. According to the festival’s founder, Larry Harvey, the Burning Man ethos is just good ol’ fashioned capitalism. He’s not entirely off the mark. I’d agree that the extravagance of Burning Man wouldn’t be possible without the huge surpluses produced by California’s digital economy. But this is not the same old capitalism… I’ll be trying to dig deeper into these and other internal contradictions.
I realized I posted the same section twice last week, so here is the real historical and overview section of my dissertation proposal.
This dissertation examines the metaphysics of imagination in the process philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead through the hermeneutical lens of a certain stream of Western esotericism. In describing the process-philosophical imagination as etheric, I aim in particular to cross-fertilize the process tradition with 20th century esotericist Rudolf Steiner’s conception of the Ätherleib, or ether body. The concept of an ether body did not originate with Steiner, but he provides an example of a modern hermetic practitioner whose knowledge of natural science and deep familiarity with the esoteric history of philosophy, particularly German Idealism, make him among the best possible candidates for such a comparative project. The exact origins of the Western esoteric tradition are notoriously difficult to trace. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, esotericism’s beginnings “have long been a matter of controversy and are still largely a subject of research. The more these origins are studied, the farther they seem to recede in the past.”5 In her groundbreaking study of Renaissance hermeticism, Francis Yates argued that it was Issaac Casaubon’s post-Christian dating of hermetic texts supposed by Renaissance magi like Ficino to predate Moses that definitively “shattered at one blow” the entire conceptual edifice of the esoteric prisci theologi.6 In contrast to Yates, Garth Fowden makes the case that these early hermetic texts are more continuous with the Egyptian alchemical tradition than Casaubon realized.7 The question of the origin of any tradition is inherently controversial. The true source of the hermetic tradition is especially contested due in no small part to its penchant for religious hybridization. Rather than try to stake out a position in this controversy, my research into the weird family of esoteric traditions will proceed without any assumption of purity. Steiner is foregrounded only because of his familiarity with Schelling and modern science, not because his Anthroposophy is somehow the most “authentic” expression of esotericism.
In his introduction to The Hermetic Deleuze (2012), Joshua Ramey laments the “general academic-philosophical prejudice” against esotericism, suggesting that this prejudice “constitutes a symptomatic repression of the complexity of both the history of modern philosophy and the stakes of contemporary culture.”8 Ramey’s more pessimistic attitude is tempered by S. J. McGrath, who in the introduction to The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012) suggests that esotericism “is gaining respect in non-foundationalist academic circles” due largely to “the postmodern absence of authoritative arguments for continuing to exclude whole genres of Western literature from more canonically respectable studies in religion and philosophy.”9
Like the esoteric traditions, the process tradition has also found itself on the margins of the Western philosophical canon, and is only more recently being creatively retrieved by a number of academics across multiple disciplines. Most standard readings of the history of modern philosophy consider Schelling to be a mere stepping-stone between Fichte’s subjective and Hegel’s absolute idealism. Though usually characterized along with them as an “idealist” himself, I will follow thinkers like Iain Hamilton Grant10 and Arran Gare11 by situating Schelling within the process tradition as a thinker primarily of nature (be it human, divine, or cosmic nature).
Contemporary Schelling scholar Jason Wirth finds it regrettable that “many have long thought that we are done with Schelling, that he is a ‘dead dog.’”12 It seems that the only respectable academic tasks remaining are to “[dissect] the corpus of Schelling into its various periods and phases,…expose inconsistencies in his thinking, attach various isms to his arguments, [and/or to] situate him in some narrative within the history of philosophy.”13 More recently, however, due in some part to Wirth’s and Grant’s efforts, this sentiment seems to be shifting; as Wirth writes, “after more than a century and a half of neglect, Schelling’s time has come.”14 One of the principle reasons for this emerging Schelling renaissance, I’ll argue, is the relevance of his process-oriented Naturphilosophie to the task of re-thinking the relationship between humanity and earth in light of the planetary ecological crisis.
The longstanding neglect of Schelling, especially in the Anglo-American academy, has not been without reason. There is indeed something strange and extravagant, even occult, about Schelling’s thought, at least when judged from within the intellectual strictures of modern academic philosophy. However, the severity of the ecological crisis has brought many of the foundational assumptions of modern philosophy into doubt,15 opening the way for a reconsideration not only of Schelling’s conception of an ensouled cosmos, but of a whole swathe of previously marginalized esoteric philosophical literature. Schelling’s approach to philosophy was deeply influenced by the theosophy of Jakob Böhme, Friedrich Christoph Oetinger, Philipp Matthäus Hahn, and Franz von Baader, which makes the cross-fertilization of the process and esoteric traditions sought in my dissertation all the more appropriate.
Though somewhat influential among American theologians during the later half of the 20th century, until quite recently Whitehead, like Schelling, has been neglected by academic philosophers. According to Michel Weber and Anderson Weekes, this neglect is largely the fault of Whiteheadians themselves, whose almost total focus on scholastic textual exegesis and lack of interdisciplinary outreach has threatened Whitehead’s ideas with extinction by creating the perception that they are only available “in fossil form.”16 Weber and Weekes’ negative assessment of the last half-century of Whitehead scholarship may be somewhat overstated, especially considering the many examples of interdisciplinary engagement in the work of Whiteheadian theologians like Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, and David Ray Griffin. Though there may have been an element of “scholasticism” that assumed the superior capacity of Whitehead’s technical system to conduct and translate interdisciplinary disagreement, the more probable reason for process philosophy’s academic marginalization is the fact that it conceives of nature as enchanted and takes notions like panpsychism and the existence of an encosmic divinity seriously.
Whether or not Weber and Weekes’ have overstated the insularity of the first wave of Whitehead scholarship, they represent part of a second wave of outsiders who are, as they put it, “storming the museum.”17 Another second wave Whiteheadian, Isabelle Stengers, argues that the Whiteheadian palette is currently being greatly enriched “by practitioners from the most diverse horizons, from ecology to feminism, practices that unite political struggle and spirituality with the sciences of education…in a singularly lively and tenacious way.”18 Rather than approaching Schelling and Whitehead as a museum curator, my dissertation will aim to breathe new life into their thought, to think with them towards a more imaginative philosophy of mind and of nature enriched by the speculative resources of esoteric wisdom.
According to McGrath, though the esoteric schools represent a diverse set of theories and practices, they are nonetheless “united by a common enemy: the desacralization of nature (material nature, human nature, cosmological nature) by techno-science and capitalist consumerism.”19 He argues that critiques of esotericism as “regressive,” “anti-modern,” and “anti-scientific” are misguided. Although esotericism shares modernity’s “impulse toward human amelioration through science,” it seeks this amelioration through an alternative conception of the human-cosmos relation: “Western esoteric nature-philosophy refuses to follow mainstream natural science and split mind from matter, spirit from animal, finite from infinite…Esoteric modernity is a road not taken in the history of science…a modern approach to nature which was openly rejected in the seventeenth century because it did not grant us the calculative control which techno-science demanded of the Western mind.”20 One of the major goals of this dissertation is to show that, along with Western esotericism, process philosophy also contains the seeds of an alternative conception of modernity no longer bent on the domination of human and earthly nature by alienated modes of theoretical and practical rationality. Both the esoteric and process traditions provide philosophy with a new way of seeing the universe–a way of seeing (i.e., the etheric imagination) which in turn may provide humanity with a new way of living in concert with the wider community of life on earth.
Imagination itself has had a rather tense, even tumultuous, relationship to philosophy going all the way back to Plato, who infamously denied poets entry to his ideal city.21 For many philosophers in the modern Western tradition, its ineffable, largely non-rational and often erotically charged powers were considered deeply suspect, both for epistemological and for ethical reasons–even when imagination played a central role in their own philosophical systems! For example, as Alexander Schlutz argues, even though Descartes “forcefully excludes imagination from his conception of the cogito,”22 he nonetheless draws upon its poetic powers repeatedly in his physical speculations, and even admits during his autobiographical narration in Discourse on the Method (1637) that “doubt itself…is a product of imagination.”23 Similarly, though Kant affirms imagination as an “indispensable function of the human soul,” he also denigrates it as “a potential source of madness, delusion, and mental derangement.”24 I will revisit the paradox of this “double gesturing” by the major figures in the history of philosophy throughout my dissertation, connecting it to the polar, oscillatory dynamism so characteristic of imagination. I will attempt to articulate a less ambiguous, esoterically-inflected approach to the philosophical imagination that is responsive to the challenges made evident by these major figures.
5 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV: Esotericism and Gnosticism.
6 Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), 400.
7 Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (1986), 34-35.
8 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 6-8.
9 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 21.
10 Philosophies of Nature after Schelling (2006).
11 “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics: On the Way to Ecological Civilization” in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 7, no. 2, 2011.
12 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2003), 1. Wirth here employs the philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s epithet originally coined as a reference to Spinoza, a controversial figure in Germany at the turn of the 19th century, as well as a major influence on Schelling.
13 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2003), 1-2.
14 Wirth, ed., Schelling Now: Contemporary Readings (2005), 9.
15 Schelling was ahead of his time in this respect, writing in 1809 that “The entire new European philosophy since its beginning (with Descartes) has the common defect that nature is not available for it and that it lacks a living ground” (Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 26).
16 Process Approaches to Consciousness in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy of Mind (2009), 2.
17 Process Approaches to Consciousness in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy of Mind (2009), 2.
18 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011), 6.
19 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 22.
20 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 22.
21 Though of course, Plato’s relationship to imagination and poetry is not so cut and dry. He may have banished the poets from his Republic, but he himself was one of the most imaginative and poetic writers in the history of letters.
22 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 4.
23 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 77.
24 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 4.
Before you read this post, go watch Bruno Latour’s recent Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, titled “Facing Gaia: A New Enquiry into Natural Religion” (or read the PDF version). I’ve written a few short commentaries on these lectures that may help bring you up to speed if you don’t have the 7 or 8 hours to watch them all just yet: here are my reflections on lectures one, two, three, four, and six).
Next, read my friend Grant Maxwell’s post comparing Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern to Richard Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind, both published in 1991. Grant is an editor of Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology, an academic journal that is continuing to develop the perspective of Tarnas’ last book, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (2007).
I applaud Grant’s diplomatic effort to bring these two thinkers into dialogue–thinkers who, on the face of it, seem to be engaged in incommensurable projects. While Latour’s Modern aims primarily at the problematization of any simple story about the rise and fall of “Modern Western Man,” Tarnas’ Passion would seem to aim precisely to tell such a story. The story Tarnas tells, of course, is hardly “simple.” He succeeds in brilliantly tracing the grand multi-millennial narrative of Western philosophical history through each of its dramatic dialectical twists: from the strange and unsteady but powerfully dynamic Christian synthesis of Greek philosophy and Hebrew prophecy; through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution; on to the progress of the Enlightenment and the reaction of Romanticism; finally culminating in the hermeneutical sensitivity of our post-modern condition, a sensitivity that entails both the peril of groundless relativism and deconstructive suspicion as well as the soul-healing and world-enchanting promise of post-Jungian depth, archetypal, and psychedelic psychologies (Tarnas develops this “promise/peril” theme in his preface to Cosmos and Psyche, “The Two Suitors”). I believe Tarnas’ motivation for telling his epic history of the evolution of consciousness in the West is not only to argue for the over-all nobility of the Western project, but to prophesy its imminent self-inflicted dialectical sublation by the “otherness” it has for so long been projecting onto “Nature,” “God,” and most especially, “the Feminine” (Passion, 444). In the final lines of Passion, Tarnas’ writes:
[W]hy has the pervasive masculinity of the Western intellectual and spiritual tradition suddenly become so apparent to us today, while it remained so invisible to almost every previous generation? I believe this is occurring only now because, as Hegel suggested, a civilization cannot become conscious of itself, cannot recognize its own significance, until it is so mature that it is approaching its own death.
Today we are experiencing something that looks very much like the death of modern man, indeed that looks very much like the death of Western man. Perhaps the end of “man” himself is at hand. But man is not a goal. Man is something that must be overcome–and fulfilled, in the embrace of the feminine. (445)
Latour, while he may be somewhat more suspicious of Hegel’s totalizing dialectical philosophy of history, is, in a unique but comparable way, also prophesying the inevitable overcoming of “man” as a result of his terrible embrace by the long-forgotten goddess of earth, Gaia.
From Grant’s perspective, having studied Tarnas’ work deeply but admittedly having just begun his study of Latour’s by reading Modern,
the cores of both works partially intersect and express the archetypal quality of that moment near the height of postmodernism, which has a lot to do with seeing through seemingly airtight modern constructs to a novel vision of reality.
I agree that it is just this potential for creatively seeing through the postmodern condition that makes both mens’ work so relevant to anyone involved in what we could call the “re-enchantment project.” However, whether Latour is indeed involved in such a project or not remains a matter of contention. Grant isn’t at all satisfied with Latour’s seeming dismissal of the need to mourn the loss of an enchanted world (Modern, 114cf.). I suppose I read Latour’s ironic statements about modern science and technology bringing about the disenchantment of the world somewhat differently than Grant. Latour may be a bit flippant at times, but his point is certainly not to “do everything he can to deny enchantment,” as Grant argues. Latour’s point, as I understand him, is precisely the opposite. Drawing in no small part upon the work of his Whiteheadian friends, Isabelle Stengers (see Capitalist Sorcery) and Donna Haraway (see Latour’s review of Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature), Latour argues that we have never been disenchanted, that in fact, modernity has been far more a wayward adventure in mis-enchantment than outright dis-enchantment.
Moderns may have lost their ability to magically participate in the animate powers of the earth and larger cosmos (a loss worth mourning), but the modern world is hardly lacking its own forms of consumer-capitalist misenchantment. Moderns have devised their own, no less enchanted technoscientific magic. This modern magic, with its hybrid factishes and cyborg machines, has allowed for the construction of an immense networked technoösphere whose all-encompassing mediation of human life (by satellite-linked touch screens and the like) has by now all but severed our conscious connection to earth and cosmos. Even the stars are now out-shined by the numinous glow of our gadgetry.
I’d argue, then, that Latour, like Tarnas, is involved in the re-enchantment project. This is especially evident after Latour’s Gifford Lectures on Gaia, as we’ll see below. He sees, like Stengers and Haraway, that the technocapitalist-entertainment complex has been providing humanity with a sort of surrogate enchantment for much of the last century. This makes the task of re-enchantment all the more perilous, since it involves not simply bringing a bit of magic back into a mechanized universe, but rather represents a true sorcerers’ battle pitting light and dark magics against one another. Who will win: Big Oil propaganda, or the world’s indigenous peoples and their reverence for Mother Earth? Or someone else? “Would it be possible,” asks Latour as part of an effort to summon “the people of Gaia,”
to accept the candidacy of those people who claim to be assembled, for instance, by Pachamama, the Earth goddess? May be, if only we could be sure that what passes for a respect for the Earth is not due to their small numbers and to the relative weakness of their technology. None of those so called ‘traditional’ people, the wisdom of which we often admire, is being prepared to scale up their ways of life to the size of the giant technical metropolises in which are now corralled more than half of the human race. (lecture 6)
Grant is put off by the difficult and anxiety-producing academic style of Latour’s Modern, preferring the “classical narrative clarity” of Tarnas’ Passion. There is no question that Tarnas’ book can and has reached a larger sector of the educated general public. But Latour didn’t write Modern for the general public. He wrote it for the modern philosophers, anthropologists, and sociologists who mistakenly enforce the nature/society dichotomy he so detests. We might say that Modern was an attempt to transform the modern Zeitgeist from the top down, while Passion attempted to do the same from the middle up.
As for the anxiety one may feel upon reading Modern, or listening to the Gifford Lectures, Latour might respond by asking if hope might not be our biggest enemy. Hope allows us to wait until tomorrow to face the climate crisis, because maybe our situation isn’t so bad, after all. Like most of the world’s climate scientists, he has recognized the direness of our planetary position, the fact that we are already committed to at least 2 degrees centigrade of global warming, and that in all likelihood, we will be committed to far more before any meaningful action is taken. The changing climate that results from this warming will produce tens of millions of refugees, food shortages, and resource wars. Latour depicts climatologists as the most tragic figures of our time, in that despite their knowledge of the coming threat, they cannot mobilize the political will to do anything about it. They are the first scientists to be accused by other scientists of being a lobby. Latour’s project is an attempt to empower their knowledge, not by pretending to purify it of the vagaries of politics (as modern scientists normally do), but by re-positioning scientists from their disincarnate perspective beyond earth to an incarnate perspective bound to earth. This means admitting one’s local concerns and grounded norms, even and especially when one’s profession is the production of scientific facts. The climatologists are the closest the planet has to a people of Gaia, according to Latour. They are the people who speak on behalf of earth’s health.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Latour was barking up the wrong tree in Modern–that, on the contrary, we have been modern and science once could be purified of politics. In his recent Gifford Lectures, he sets out to prove that, in the age of the Anthropocene, we can no longer be modern because the natural fact of climate change is inseparable from the economic and political values of society. The reason ours’ is such an anxiety-producing time, according to Latour, is because Whitehead’s bifurcation, rather than being brought to its end by the revenge of Gaia, has, in fact, been reversed:
Incredibly enough, the question has become whether humans may retrieve a sense of history that has been ripped away from them by what they had taken until now to be a mere frame devoid of any agency. The Bifurcation of Nature, so criticized by Whitehead, has not come to a close: it has reversed itself in the most unexpected way, the ‘primary qualities’ being now marked by sensitivity, agency, reaction, uncertainty; the ‘secondary qualities’ by indifference, insensibility, numbness. (lecture 6)
In other words, “nature,” for so long merely the raw material out of which the progress of human history was made to take shape, is now, due to the unpredictable nonlinear effects of climate change, beginning to seem far more agential and sensitive than we human beings, our political paralysis and complete lack of serious response to the looming threat of ecological disaster making us seem more like inert and insensitive consumerist robots.
Since the Scientific Revolution, moderns have pretended to possess a “view from nowhere.” This objective view was predicated upon Galileo’s erasure of the primordial dichotomy between the earthly and heavenly spheres of the cosmos. In the beginning of his 3rd Gifford Lecture, Latour offers his non-modern take on the “reverse symmetry” displayed in Galileo’s theory of universal nature and Lovelock’s Gaia theory. Both men, Latour points out, “[turned] cheap instruments to the skies to make radically opposite discoveries.” In a way similar to Tarnas’ astrologically-informed (and so geocentric) participatory perspective, Latour argues that the living earth really does inhabit a special sub-lunary realm. One wonders if Latour’s attempt to return earth to its pre-Galileo status might be of any assistance to those hoping to re-assert the “metaphysical and psychological premises” of archetypal cosmology (see Passion, p. 296). I’ll quote Latour’s 3rd lecture at length:
While Galileo, by looking up beyond the horizon to the sky, was expanding the similarity between this Earth and all the other falling bodies, Lovelock, by looking down on us from one of those heavenly bodies, is actually decreasing the similarity among all the planets and this highly peculiar Earth of ours. From his tiny office in Pasadena, like someone slowly sliding the roof of a convertible car tightly shut, Lovelock brings his reader back to what should be taken, once again, as a sublunary world. Not because the Earth lacks perfection, quite the opposite; not because it hides in its interior the dark site of Hell; but because it has—and it alone has—the privilege of being alive in a certain fashion—which also means, in a certain fashion, being corruptible—that is, animated and also, thus, simultaneously in equilibrium yet brittle. In a word: actively maintaining a difference between inside and outside. Even stranger, the Blue Planet suddenly stands out as what is made of a long concatenation of historical, local, hazardous, specific and contingent events as if it were the temporary outcome of a ‘geohistory’ as attached to specific places and dates as the Biblical narrative, that is, exactly what was not to be taken into account when considered simply as a falling body among all the others.
Is not the reverse symmetry really admirable? Take the cliché of three ‘narcissistic wounds’ celebrated by Freud: first Copernicus, then Darwin and then — somewhat narcissistically — Freud himself? Human arrogance was supposed to have been deeply hurt by the Copernican revolution that had chased the human out of the centre of the cosmos (and hurt deeper still by the discovery, secondly of Darwin, and, thirdly, of the Unconscious that had kicked the human subject out of its privileged position). But in order to invent such a series of wounds, Freud had to forget the enthusiasm with which the so-called ‘Copernican revolution’ had been embraced by all those who had suffered so much for being stuck in the dark centre of a cosmos out of which they had no other escape but the super lunar regions, the only place where incorruptible truths could be found. Out of the hole at last!
Those familiar with Tarnas’ argument concerning the fundamental ambiguity of the Copernican revolution (representing both a blow to human centrality as well as a boon to human autonomy) will recognize its similarity to Latour’s treatment.
In closing, Latour may not be as optimistic about human history as Hegel, for whom all of natural and human history is “spirit disporting with itself” (as he wrote in the Phenomenology). Latour sees just as much contingency as he does dialectical inevitability in the course of evolution. On the other hand, he is a practicing Catholic, though I’m as yet unable to determine how the doctrine of providence survives his seemingly heretical, almost pagan, natural theology.
“Even Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit,” said Latour during his 5th lecture,
did not envision that the advent of the Anthropocene would so radically reverse the direction of the historical project–that humans would be dialectically merged with the geostorical adventure of carbon, oxygen, and metal. Think of that! The whole breath of Spirit now sublated, aufheben, overcome, intoxicated by carbon dioxide…
Tarnas, not unlike Hegel, would seem to have a greater degree of trust in the dialectical plot underlying our human adventure, that no matter how dark our plight may become, “it is always darkest just before the dawn.” Personally, I experience equal doses of hope and anxiety when faced by earth’s future prospects. I deeply appreciate the work of both Tarnas and Latour for providing us (those of us engaged in the “re-enchantment project”) with some essential weapons in our ongoing battle for the soul of the world.
Below I’ve written a paper using the ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Alfred North Whitehead to construct a secular divinity. For Deleuze, this is an especially serious act of buggery on my part. Deleuze of course approved of that method in his own projects, but I wonder if he would approve of the baby jesus child that I’m trying to make him have in this paper. I’m directing Deleuze’s demand that we philosophers think immanently by believing in the world toward an interpretation of the Christian religion and faith. This is exactly what Whitehead does in Adventures of Ideas where he looks to the martyr Jesus for the exemplification of something that the philosopher Plato first divined as an ideal. Plato made a world-historical intellectual discovery, as Whitehead puts it, or as Deleuze would say he created a concept that has continued to reverberate across the ages. Where traditional monotheistic theologists create a concept of divinity as a transcendent and omnipotent imposer of form and order and law upon an entirely separate derivative world, with Plato you have the idea of divine immanence in the world working through persuasion–through desire, eros, beauty, and love–to transform the world “slowly and in quietness,” as Whitehead puts it, rather than by hurling thunderbolts from heaven. Plato invented a new idea of God working within the world as love, which is a kind of power, but not the power of brute force. God is no longer a creator who shapes the whole thing from outside. Rather, God is involved in, caught up with the process of cosmogenesis and spatiotemporal becoming, such that the world is as necessary for the nature of God as God is for the nature of the World…
“Behold, I am making all things new.”
The purpose of this essay is to unpack Deleuze’s and Whitehead’s philosophical contributions to the task of re-thinking religion in an increasingly fenced in, post-everything world no longer certain of its own secularity.1 “The secularization of the concept of God’s functions in the world,” argued Whitehead in 1927, “is at least as urgent a requisite of thought as is the secularization of other elements in experience.”2 With a similar sense of urgency, Deleuze (and Guattari) argued in 1991 that, in an age when “we have so many reasons not to believe in the human world,” philosophy’s most pressing task is to “give birth to new modes of existence, closer to animals and rocks,” modes of existence which renew “[belief] in this world, in this life.”3 Deleuze’s emphasis on immanence as against transcendence, on this world as opposed to the next, should not be read as a blanket dismissal of spiritual practice. On the contrary, for Deleuze, the creative thinking demanded by philosophical inquiry invites infinite cosmic forces into the finite mind, making philosophy akin to an “initiatory…spiritual ordeal.”4 Philosophers are those who dare to welcome such dangerous forces, risking not only their academic reputations,5 but the habit-formed security of their egos. Philosophers do not simply reflect ideas, they allow ideas to enter into and transform them:
This is because one does not think without becoming something else, something that does not think–an animal, a molecule, a particle–and that comes back to thought and revives it.6
Deleuze calls for a radical break with all forms of commonsense–whether it be religious, artistic, philosophical, or scientific–through the intercession of concepts with personalities who are willing to continually confront the absolute horizon of the plane, and so who are able to fold the infinite movements of Nous and Physis back into one another “in such a way that the plane of immanence is ceaselessly being woven, like a gigantic shuttle.”7 Philosophy, unlikes dogmatic religions, does not paint the firmament on an umbrella, rather it “[tears] open the firmament and [plunges] into the chaos.”8 As we will see, however, philosophy’s role is to not only to descend into the underworld, but to return with the good news.
Whitehead, for his part, has Jamesian tendencies that would at first glance seem to ally his philosophical efforts to the pragmatic interests of commonsense. “The philosophy of organism,” he wrote, “is an attempt, with the minimum of critical adjustment, to return to the concepts of ‘the vulgar.’”9 Whitehead made this comment in the context of a skeptical attack on behalf of commonsense experience mounted against the mechanistic abstractions of Newton (who dismissed the mathematically-naïve sense-based opinions of “the vulgar”) and the transcendental abstractions of Kant (who opposed derivative sensory appearances to ultimate substantial reality). Whitehead was well aware of the danger of hyperbole.10 In this case, however, it seems he fell prey to the danger of understatement. The “critical adjustment” his cosmology requires of the opinions of modern people can hardly be described as “minimal.” By the time Whitehead has finished his adventure in cosmologizing, not only will God have become creaturely, but energy vectors will have been transformed into emotional currents and atoms will have been endowed with life. Further, the very substance of the soul, the continuity of personal identity, will have become but a precariously linked “route of presiding occasions…[wandering] from part to part of the brain,” always vulnerable to dislocations and interruptions which “in primitive times [were] interpreted as demoniac possession.”11 Rather than having been made in heaven by God and beginning life fully-formed and eternally the same, the soul comes to matter to us precisely because it is what is always at risk, “what might be captured, reduced to wandering, enslaved.”12 No longer given as one, already whole, the soul becomes a social value to be achieved, a swarming community of larval subjects needing to be repeatedly composed or concresced out of the chaosmic raw materials of life (i.e., intensive percepts and affects). “Being a soul” in Whitehead’s process ontology is deeply problematic, even dangerous, because one never simply is but must become-soul. “Losing one’s hold [going mad],” in the context of Whitehead’s psychology, “becomes…the paradigmatic disaster, or else…the precondition of any initiation or any spiritual transformation.”13 It would seem that neither the traditional theologian nor the classical physicist, much less the average modern business owner, government employee, or homemaker, could feel at home in such a strange Whiteheadian universe! Both Deleuze and Whitehead generated concepts rooted in non-ordinary problematics, which is to say that the solutions distilled by their concepts problematize naïve egoic subjectivity by acting as alchemical catalysts that alter not only the contents of conscious thoughts, but the unconscious imaginative background of thought itself, thereby repositioning thinking on some as yet undetected plane of immanence. They are hermetic thinkers whose philosophizing sought not rational explanation, but the instigation of worldly renewal and the intensification of the depth of aesthetic experience. It is important in this context to forge connections between their efforts to creatively transform commonsense experience and the wider projects of establishing coherent social values and just political institutions. Deleuze’s philosophy has been criticized for being “politically irrelevant” by Peter Hallward due to its perceived “otherworldliness.”14 Isabelle Stengers has also criticized Deleuze’s tendency to celebrate the adventures of solitary, heroic creators who fearlessly dive into chaos while at the same time downplaying the conditions provided by their habitat and their inevitable need for social recuperation upon returning to consensual reality:
…all creators have learned [what] makes them able to “dive” without being swallowed. A dive cannot be improvised, but demands equipment. Unlike those who may happen to “sink” into chaos, creators are those who know what they experience “matters,” and that they will be able to recount something of what has happened to them, that is to come back…even from the land of the dead.15
Stengers’ contrasts Deleuze’s celebration of unhinged creativity with Whitehead’s tremendous respect for history and continual emphasis upon the importance of acquiring new habits in a way that is sensitive to the habitat they depend upon. “Each task of creation,” writes Whitehead, “is a social effort, employing the whole universe.”16 While Hallward’s claim may or may not be justified, Stengers’ modest Whiteheadian corrective to Deleuze’s penchant for skinny dipping in the Acheron allows us to receive much insight and inspiration from the latter without forgetting the perhaps more pertinent imperative of the former regarding the worldly responsibility of the philosopher:
…[to] seek the evidence for that conception of the universe which is the justification for the ideals characterizing the civilized phases of human society.17
When it comes to the influence of the mainline religious traditions of the West upon philosophy, both Whitehead and Deleuze lob devastating rebukes. Whitehead’s ire is almost always directed at the “idolatrous” habit of conceiving of God along the lines of an all-powerful imperial ruler or distant unmoved mover.18 “Religion,” writes Whitehead, “has emerged into human experience mixed with the crudest fancies of barbaric imagination.”19 Deleuze also mocks the idea of a “great despot” or “imperial State in the sky or on earth” typical of monotheistic commonsense.20 While this particular habit of religious thought is deemed dispensable, Whitehead is unwilling to jettison religious values outright, despite calls by the modern-minded to found civilization instead upon the abstractions of mechanistic science:
Unfortunately for this smug endeavor to view the universe as the incarnation of the commonplace, the impact of aesthetic, religious, and moral notions is inescapable. They are the disrupting and the energizing forces of civilization.21
In particular, Whitehead points to the “Galilean origin of Christianity” as an example of a non-despotic religious persona: Christ. Christ “neither rules, nor is unmoved,” but “dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love.”22 Deleuze also singles out Christian philosophy, both for praise and for disparagement. Those pre-modern Christian philosophers (like Cusa, Eckhart, and Bruno) who were bold enough to challenge church authority and risk their lives by injecting at least a dose of immanence into Physis and Nous still refused in the end to “compromise the transcendence of a God to which immanence must be attributed only secondarily.”23 Later modern Christian philosophers (like Pascal and Kierkegaard), though they were still men of faith, created concepts that recharged, rather than diminished, immanence. They were
concerned no longer with the transcendent existence of God but only with the infinite immanent possibilities brought by the one who believes that God exists.24
Deleuze suggests that, in the modern period, belief replaced knowledge as the dominant image of thought.25 The “will to truth” that had guided philosophy for so long lost its viability, as with the new technical power of modernity came also a crippling epistemic skepticism, an inability to grasp truth outright. No longer could the productivity of thought be “guaranteed in advance by the inherent connection between the good and the true”; rather, Deleuze believed that philosophical thought in the modern period required “trespass and violence,” treating the thinker of thought not as a trustworthy friend, but as an enemy.26 Truth is now to be inferred at best, tracked with suspicion but without certainty. The new plane of belief is not simply destructive or crippling, however: it is also the condition for the possibility of new forms of mental and physical experience. As with the Christian thinkers of immanence, Deleuze emphasized the “unforeseeable directions of thought and practice” that belief makes possible, directions to be judged not based on the object of a belief, but on a belief’s effect.27 A related feature of modern philosophy for Deleuze results from thought’s encounter and struggle with the unrepresentable natural forces underlying perceptual and affective experience, forces which paradoxically “must but cannot be thought.”28 Given modern thought’s confrontation with the infinite forces of the universe, its concepts can no longer be understood to represent a stable reality or to mirror a harmonious nature; rather, “what matters…in an idea is…the range of experimental possibility it opens onto.”29
Whitehead shares with Deleuze a sense for the importance of experimental thinking. In the context of religious experimentation, asking whether or not God really exists becomes irrelevant. What becomes important is the sort of thoughts and practices that belief in God makes possible for the believer, and for the society to which the believer belongs. “The power of God,” writes Whitehead, “is the worship He inspires.”30 “The fact of the religious vision,” he continues,
and its history of persistent expansion, is our one ground for optimism. Apart from it, human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience.31
The “religious vision,” as Whitehead understands it, “gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension,” providing life with “something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.”32 The vision, though aesthetically and emotionally ultimate, cannot be monopolized by the limited doctrines of any religion in particular. It can be said, however, that the rising or falling tide of each religious tradition through the ages depends upon the ability of its concepts, symbols, rituals, myths, architecture, and personae (etc.) to inspire worship in such a way that the intuition of God is called forth naturally from spiritual recesses deeper than can be rationally understood.33 The psychology of modern civilization, from Whitehead’s point of view, has little patience for the traditional image of God as an omnipotent dictator. In this respect, such images are “fatal,” since “religion collapses unless its main positions command immediacy of assent.”34
More often than any religious image per say, Deleuze’s target is the illusion of transcendence as such, which results whenever we “[interpret immanence] as immanent to Something.”35 The illusion of transcendence resonates with 3 other illusions, or “thought mirages”: 1) universality, which results when the immanent planomenon is conceived as immanent “to” a concept, 2) eternity, which results when we forget that concepts must be created and are not waiting in the sky for thinkers to discover, and 3) discursiveness, which results when concepts are reduced to logical propositions.36 These illusions become a thick fog obscuring the plane of immanence, condemning the philosophical and religious thinker alike to continually grasp after immanence as though it might be made immanent “to” something, whether it be “the great Object of contemplation [the neo-Platonic One], the Subject of reflection [the Kantian transcendental subject], or the Other subject of communication [the Husserlian intersubjective transcendental].”37 The plane of immanence cannot itself be thought, since it provides the very condition for thought.38 Whenever a thinker believes he has thought the plane, we can be sure he has only contemplated, reflected, or communicated an idol.
The pure immanence of the philosophical planomenon can be likened to the friend, i.e., Wisdom, She who provides the condition for the possibility of philosophy.39 The friend is the paradigmatic “conceptual persona” of philosophy. Conceptual personae, according to Deleuze, have a “somewhat mysterious…hazy existence halfway between concept and preconceptual plane, passing from one to the other.”40 In the case of the friend, it must be asked what it could mean to become friendly if the friend had not once been, and could not become again, a stranger. On the philosophical planomenon, the friend and the stranger, the thought and its thinker, never engage in discussion with one another. Discussion is useless to philosophy, since all a discussion implies is that concepts have been mistaken for propositions, as if they could be deliberately expressed in sentence form (the illusion of discursiveness).41 Once the discursive mirage has captured a thinker, thought can only circle about itself in dialectical pursuit of a shallow truth extracted from the agonism of opinion.42 The more interesting dialectics end in aporia (Plato’s aporietic dialogues and Kant’s table of antinomies); or even more interestingly, they swallow up opposed opinions into the absolute as necessary moments in the historical unfolding of the eternal concept (Hegel). But there can be no dialectic that resolves itself in absolute identity–this would mean the end of philosophy (which is why Hegel claimed no longer to be a philosopher, but to have become wise). Both the friend and the stranger are necessary illusions for philosophy: philosophy, in other words, “requires this division of thought between [friend and stranger].” The philosophical creator of concepts must remain divided against himself at the same time that he befriends the image of thought projected in the division. The progress of philosophy depends upon a philosopher’s willingness to dwell within (without becoming immanent “to”) continual crises of agonism and reconciliation, meeting therein a proliferation of strange friends and friendly strangers. Deleuze writes:
It is as if the struggle against chaos does not take place without an affinity with the enemy, because another struggle develops and takes on more importance–the struggle against opinion, which claims to protect us from chaos itself.43
To dwell in crisis is no easy task. But this is the task required of a modern thinker, especially a Christian philosopher who has accepted the risks of thinking God’s immanence. To secularize the concept of God, as Whitehead and Deleuze demand, is to uncover “thought’s relationship with the earth,”44 to dig up what has been buried beneath the foggy illusions of transcendence estranging humanity from its home. To think with the earth is still a creative act; but it is also a matter of recovery, or resurrection, and of uncovering, or apocalypse.45
Christian philosophy’s paradigmatic conceptual persona is Christ, “the Word” who “became flesh and dwelt among us.”46 At first blush, He may seem, like other personae, to possess a less than incarnate, hazy existence somewhere between the immanence of the plane (matter/earth) and the transcendence of the concept (spirit/heaven). As John said, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it”47:––Traditional theology has all too often emphasized Christ’s transcendence, making Him more spirit than human (and making humanity more sinful than blessed).
Despite His initially ghostly outline, Christ’s ideality cannot be understood to be in any way abstract: He is rather an (the?) intercessor, the seed of a peculiarly Christian mode of thinking. “A particular conceptual persona,” writes Deleuze, “who perhaps did not exist before us, thinks in us.”48 Of Christ it is said that He both was in the beginning before us and will be in the end after us. His omnipresence lays out a uniquely immanent image of thought based on incarnation. The Christian plane of immanence demands a creation of concepts whose central problematic, or spiritual ordeal, is death, and whose solution, should it be realized, is an earthly form of resurrection. The Christian planomenon is unique because it is founded upon the birth, death, and resurrection of God on earth, which is to say it depends upon the possibility of the becoming-immanent of transcendence itself. Only then can the Christian thinker become inhabited by living thinking. “My old self,” writes Paul,
has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.49
Like the philosophical friend, Christ’s teachings can appear strange. “I tell you,” He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”50 How can an earthly human being–normatively tied to family, friend, race, and nation–possibly live up to such an impossible, indeed infinite, demand? It is a demand that does violence to opinion and breaks with all commonsense. Nonetheless, this demand provides the peculiarly Christian problematic, an ordeal whose resolution requires becoming-incarnate, and thereby participating in bringing about an as yet unrealized providential plan(e), “on earth, as it is in heaven.”51 This is the strangeness of the “Galilean origin” of Christianity mentioned by Whitehead, where the transcendent power of divine coercion is replaced by the immanent love of divine persuasion. While Whitehead did not believe it possible, or even desirable, to construct a doctrinal unity out of the world’s diversity of religions, he did believe
that it is possible, amid these differences, to reach a general agreement as to those elements, in intimate human experience and general history, which we select to exemplify that ultimate theme of the divine immanence, as a completion required by our cosmological outlook.52
In other words, while humanity will certainly continue to disagree as to the particular qualitative aspects of religious facts and their proper moral interpretations, some coordination of these facts along a single plane of immanence may at least be attempted. Whitehead’s cosmological candidate for the ultimate religious theme is Divine Eros. His philosophical intervention into traditional theology aimed to transform the transcendent God of “coercive forces wielding the thunder” into the creaturely God of persuasion, “which slowly and in quietness [operates] by love.” 53 Given humanity’s recently seized god-like powers of technology, sustaining our planetary civilization would seem to depend upon the realization of such a secular “earth ethos.” Our civilization is in dire need of a world-renewing metaphysical consensus regarding the divine nature. If we are unable to believe in the divinity of the world, our collective behavior runs the risk destroying that world. The spirit of religion, though it is from time to time “explained away, distorted, and buried,” has never once entirely left us, according to Whitehead, “since the travel of mankind towards civilization.”54 Whenever religion takes flight from worldly concerns, it is the sure sign of a world nearing its end.
Whitehead traces the gradual realization of the concept of divine immanence through a “threefold revelation” stretching approximately twelve hundred years: 1) it begins in Athens with a intellectual innovation by Plato, 2) then passes into Jerusalem where the person of Jesus Christ exemplified the apocalyptic (ἀποκάλυψις- to “un-cover”) power of Plato’s concept, 3) and finally it culminates in a metaphysical interpretation of these events generated during the formative period of Christian theology.55
Whitehead regularly praises Plato’s depth of intuition. Just as often, he admits Plato’s failure to achieve a coherent overall statement of his conceptual scheme: “the greatest metaphysician, the poorest systematic thinker.”56 It is for one concept in particular, though, that Whitehead was lead to crown Plato “the wisest of men”: the idea that
the divine persuasion [Eros] is the foundation of the order of the world, but that it could only produce such a measure of harmony as amid brute forces [Chaos] it was possible to accomplish.57
It was this idea, conceived in principle by Plato, that the person of Jesus Christ was to reveal in actual deed. Though the historical records of His life are scattered and inconsistent, “there can be no doubt,” writes Whitehead, “as to what elements…have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature”:
The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory.58
Finally, it was the early Church fathers who made the first sustained effort to grope towards a coherent account of God’s persuasive agency in the world.59 The major fruit of their labor was the doctrine of the trinity (the mutual immanence of the theos-anthropos-cosmos multiplicity); more specifically, their most important contribution was the direct statement of the divine immanence in the world in the third person of the trinity. Unfortunately, despite this theological statement, the Church fathers failed to attain adequate metaphysical generality because they still exempted an infinite God from the categories applicable to the finite actual occasions involved in the becoming of the spatiotemporal world.60 Like Plato in many of his written dialogues, they were unable to disavow the notion of a derivative physical world poorly imitating the Ideas eternally realized in the mind of a disincarnate God.
Deleuze’s work has been read as an attempt to “overturn” Plato.61 In any attempt to “overturn” Plato it should be remembered that little more is required than continuing to “turn over” Plato–as in continuing to turn over the pages of his dialogues to be reminded that, like Whitman, he is large and contains multitudes.62 As Emerson put it:
the acutest searcher, the lovingest disciple could never tell what Platonism was; indeed admirable texts can be quoted on both sides of every great question, from him.63
Plato was equal parts poet and philosopher. He wrote dialogues, always leaving the doctrines for his characters. His meaning is never on the surface, even when it comes from the face of Socrates. Reading him, like reading the metaphysical experiments of Whitehead or Deleuze, is an infinite interpretive activity. For Whitehead, the entire history of European philosophy can be safely characterized as “a series of footnotes to Plato.”64 This despite the fact that Plato himself tells us in a letter to Dion that “no man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language.” “[Setting] down [one's views] in written characters” is especially denounced.65 Written words lay in their parchment graves, still, silent, and dead. The reader’s questions and disputations receive no reply. On the testimony of Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus, we know that Plato’s unwritten secret teaching had something to do with the way that
ideas themselves were composed of matter, hyle, or in other words of an indefinite multiplicity, duas aoristos, which has as its elements the great and the small, and as its form, unity, to hen.66
If this is indeed the secret teaching, then how strangely inverted is the traditional European reading of Plato! Deleuze’s reading destroys the Platonic two-world theory of perfect ideas poorly copied by sensory images, but he is allured by Plato’s alternative conception of the idea of pure Difference. Where Aristotle reduces difference to that derived from the commonsense comparison of similars, understanding Plato requires risking the sanity of one’s mind in pursuit of the dark, difficult, and dangerous idea of Difference in itself. For Plato, individuals are not constituted by their substantial forms, or by their special determinations of a genus, as they are for Aristotle; nor is knowledge of individuals constituted by generalizations from a series. Rather, Plato’s is an ontology of singularity, where knowing an individual (be it ideal or actual) requires directly intuiting its uniquely authentic line of descent, rather than representing, identifying, or abstracting its general form. As Ramey puts it, “Knowledge is not a matter of generalization but of participation.” He continues:
The claim to participation is not simply the claim to be identified as a member of a class or token of a type. It is a claim to have passed a test or to have a basis for one’s claim. The difference between the just and the unjust, pretenders to justice and authentic stewards of justice, is not a difference between any two, but an internal and constitutive difference. It is the difference an ‘immediate fact’ of participation makes…It is the selection of an icon from within a prodigious field of idols, false images.67
The difference is initiatory, “acquired by each person on their own account.”68 That is, it has to do with undertaking the descent into the chaos of the underworld and returning to tell the tale. Philosophy without initiation would quickly turn stale and become abstract. Without stories to perform on infinite plane(s) stretching beyond the relative horizons of commonsense experience, a philosopher’s concepts cannot catch fire, nor acquire the persuasive life of personality. Once the journey into the darkness of pure Difference has been undertaken, in the difficult idea one has partaken are discovered signs of its ingression into the light of physical appearance: like a flower blooming, the idea incarnates out of earthly soil. “What man of sense,” writes Plato of his pedagogy of the concept,
would plant seeds in an artificial garden, to bring forth fruit or flowers in eight days, and not in deeper and more fitting soil?69
After the Christian-Platonic initiation, the world is transfigured into a problematic network of occult icons whose meaning can only be uncovered intuitively by the mental magic of talismanic thinking. Ideas are traced into appearances as signs, moments of discontinuity in extensive physical time-space out of which the intensive oddity of self-reference emerges.70 These recursive oddities unfold themselves into the physical plane, erupting as problematic forces requiring of the flesh-hewn mind not new representations of a supposedly extra-bodily world, but self-immolation through constant death and resurrection. Thinking is an ecstatic, violent act, always killing the neurons which support it, “making the brain a set of little deaths that puts constant death within us.”71
Deleuze’s Plato creates concepts not only iconically, but ironically, in that he never claims to represent an idea as true, but only to participate in an idea as “a way of problematizing, a manner of posing questions.”72 Deleuze pushes his Platonism as far away from any two-world caricature as possible by positing, according to Ramey,
the genesis of mind in direct encounters with imperceptible forces of perception, moments when the subtle and elusive patterns of difference and repetition animating life force the mind to interpret and even to create.73
Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s immanental reading of Christianity, along with their reading of Plato’s participatory doctrines of Persuasion and Difference, provides a world-renewing medicinal brew sorely needed in the contemporary world. Deleuze writes of the “medicinal thought” of a people to come who, according Ramey,
would, at an eschatological limit, have passed beyond the segmentation of knowledge in art, science, and philosophy in some as-yet-unrealized integral life of knowledge, such as that long dreamt of in the esoteric tradition of mathesis universalis.74
For Deleuze, mathesis is “a thinking of incarnation and individuality,”75 a form of symbolic knowing that allows for the discovery (and creation) of life’s (and death’s) deepest secrets. Knowledge of life’s individuating tendency, its power to repeatedly differ from itself, reveals how “the whole [can symbolize] itself in each individual.”76 Initiation into such knowledge would not only empower individual decision and action, but could rejuvenate the social and political life of civilization. We await the people to come who will be capable of completing creation through the incarnation of this Christogenic “body without organs.”77 “If you want to make a new start in religion,” writes Whitehead, “you must be content to wait a thousand years.”78
1 Perhaps even post-apocalyptic. See Sam Mickey’s attempt to “compost” the territorialized “postal discourses” of disintegral thought in his dissertation, Philosophy for a Planetary Civilization: On the Verge of Integral Ecology, (2012), 321cf [http://search.proquest.com/docview/1017705422?accountid=25260 (accessed 12/17/2012)].
2 Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978), 207.
3 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 74.
4 Joshua Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (London: Duke University Press, 2012), 2.
5 See Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 6: There exists a “general academic-philosophical prejudice against the threatening proximity of intuitive, mystical, or even simply more emotional modes of mind to the cold calculations of pure reason…”
6 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 42.
7 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 38, 89, 177.
8 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 202.
9 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 72.
10 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 7: “The chief error in philosophy is overstatement.”
11 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 107-109.
12 Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 443.
13 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 443.
14 Peter Hallward, Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (London: Verso Books, 2006); quoted in Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 226n9.
15 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 272.
16 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 275.
17 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968), 105.
18 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.
19 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960), 192. The contemplative conception of God as unmoved mover is obviously not as crude; what it lacks is the emotional and moral intensity required to engender religious vision.
20 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 43.
21 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 19.
22 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.
23 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 45.
24 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 74.
25 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 53.
26 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, transl. Paul Patton(London: Continuum, 1994/2004), 139.
27 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 13.
28 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 16.
29 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 16-17.
30 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 192.
31 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 193.
32 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 191-192.
33 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 133.
34 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 191.
35 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 45.
36 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 49-50.
37 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 51.
38 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 37.
39 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 3.
40 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 61.
41 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 22, 28.
42 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 79.
43 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 203.
44 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 69.
45 These Christological concepts can be read in parallel to Deleuze and Guattari’s geophilosophical concepts of “reterritorialization” and “deterritorialization” (What Is Philosophy?, 69-70).
46 John 1:14.
47 John 1:5.
48 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 69.
49 Galations 2:20.
50 Matthew 5:44.
51 Matthew 6:10.
52 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961), 161.
53 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166; Process and Reality, 343.
54 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 172.
55 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166.
56 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166.
57 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 160.
58 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 167.
59 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 167-169.
60 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 169.
61 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, Ch. 4: “The Overturning of Platonism,” 112cf.
62 See Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” section 51.
63 Journal entry, Oct. 1845.
64 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 39.
65 Ironically, of course, as Plato was himself a prolific author.
66 Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (London: Continuum, 2006), 56n8.
67 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 118.
68 Deleuze, “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” foreword to Johann Malfatti de Montereggio, Mathesis, Or Studies on the Anarchy and Hierarchy of Knowledge (Paris: Editions Du Griffon D’Or, 1946), 147.
69 Phaedrus, 276c-277a.
70 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 21-22.
71 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 216; Curiously, Christian esotericist Rudolf Steiner says almost the same thing: “The chief characteristic of ordinary thinking is that each single act of thinking injures the nervous system, and above all, the brain; it destroys something in the brain. Every thought means that a minute process of destruction takes place in the cells of the brain. For this reason sleep is necessary for us, in order that this process of destruction may be made good; during sleep we restore what during the day was destroyed in our nervous system by thinking. What we are consciously aware of in an ordinary thought is in reality the process of destruction that is taking place in our nervous system” (Lecture: 1st May, 1913; http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/OccSciOccDev/19130501p01.html [accessed 12/16/2012]).
72 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 121.
73 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 125.
74 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 89.
75 Deleuze, “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” 143.
76 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 98.
77 Deleuze, The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum, 1990/2004), 102; see also Ramey’s discussion of Cusa’s anthropocosmic Christology (The Hermetic Deleuze, 236n29).
78 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 172.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” foreword to Johann Malfatti de Montereggio, Mathesis, Or Studies on the Anarchy and Hierarchy of Knowledge (Paris: Editions Du Griffon D’Or, 1946).
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
Deleuze, Gilles Difference and Repetition, transl. Paul Patton (London: Continuum, 1994/2004).
Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum, 1990/2004).
Grant, Iain Hamilton. Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (London: Continuum, 2006).
Hallward, Peter. Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (London: Verso Books, 2006).
Ramey, Joshua. The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (London: Duke University Press, 2012).
Stengers, Isabelle. Thinking With Whitehead (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). Whitehead, A. N. Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960).
Whitehead, A. N. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978).
Whitehead, A. N. Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961).
Whitehead, A. N. Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968).
The Sunset of Materialism: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science
“The sun rose on the flawless brimming sea into a sky all brazen–all one brightening for gods immortal and for mortal men on plow lands kind with grain.” -Homer25
“God invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding.” -Plato26
“When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset.” -Whitehead27
For ancient poets like Homer, the sun was a being of tremendous spiritual significance. The immense beauty of its rising and setting brought forth a dramatic display of the abiding moral harmony underlying the cosmos. For ancient philosophers like Plato, the sun was similarly a sign of the highest Good, but its visible light was thought to be only partially responsible for the shower of colors drenching earth and sky. Participating in the sunlit phenomena of the outer world was an inner noumenal light emanating from the eyes. Plato suggested that this inner light flows gently outward through the eyes from a psychic fire kindred to that animating the sun. It meets and coalesces with the light of the sun (or at night, the moon and stars) to bring forth the beauty and splendor of the universe.28 Plato’s was a participatory account of our knowledge of nature, such that soul and world were understood to synergetically intermingle in each act of perception. He considered the eyes the noblest of the senses, “source of supreme benefit to us,”
in that none of our present statements about the universe could ever have been made if we had never seen any stars, sun, or heaven. As it is, however, our ability to see the periods of [the heavens] has lead to the invention of number, and has given us the idea of time and opened the path to inquiry into the nature of the universe.29
Not only was Plato’s cosmology inclusive of perceptual experiences in its definition of nature, it felt divine eros and saw eternal eidos at work throughout the cosmos. The circling stars, sun, and moon were considered to be living gods, humanity’s wisest teachers. In his survey of European history, Whitehead places Plato at the center of the first great period of intellectual development, a period with deep influences on all subsequent thought.30 In the main, Plato’s cosmological scheme and account of visual perception, as articulated most profoundly in the dialogue Timaeus, reigned among Europe’s intelligentsia for more than 1,500 years.31 It was not until the height of the scientific revolution in the 17th century that his participatory premises were rejected by the next wave of great geniuses.
“In the year 1500,” writes Whitehead, “Europe knew less than Archimedes who died in the year 212 BCE.”32 The commonsense assumption of a person living in 1500 was that earth stood stationary at the center of a sacred series of eternally circling heavenly hosts. Below the moon, four elements composed everything; above it, something far subtler was thought to be at work. “Yet in the year 1700,” continues Whitehead, “Newton’s Principia had been written and the world was well started on the modern epoch.”33 The new analytic methods of Descartes, Galileo, and Newton succeeded in breaking the bond between the numinosity of the soul and the phenomenality of the world, bifurcating nature into two distinct substances, the material and the mental. Humanity’s understanding of its relationship with the universe underwent a fundamental transformation.
Three hundred years later, despite the evidences of modern physical science, the average 21st century person still unhesitatingly refers to the setting of the sun, to the red hues of its surrounding sky, and to the waning of its warmth as it sinks beneath the horizon. From the perspective of the well-trained mathematical physicist, such a person’s commonsense is mistaken: the sun does not set, nor is it warm, nor is its ambiance red. Its sinking, like its warmth and color, are only subjective appearances, artifacts of our perception and not facts of nature. “If the living creature were removed,” argued Galileo, the first to formalize nature’s bifurcation in terms of primary physical and secondary psychical characteristics, “all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.”34 The warmth and hue of a sunset, continues Galileo, “are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned.”35 They reside not in the essential nature of the cosmos, but in the arbitrary names of consciousness. Plato’s insight into the erotic coupling of inner/spiritual light with outer/physical light has been degraded into the dualistic modern theory of “two natures…one the conjecture and the other the dream.”36 Scientific materialism, in other words, has come to oppose our personal experience of nature (the dream) to an abstract model of nature theorized to be the impersonal cause of that experience (the conjecture).
Following upon Galileo’s initial bifurcation of nature, Descartes brilliantly articulated the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of modern scientific materialism. The eclipse of the illusory geocentric cosmos by the mathematical elegance of Copernicus’ heliocentric model (as improved upon by Kepler) made it clear to Descartes that sensory perception could not be trusted for scientific purposes. Science was to become the study of the mechanisms of the extended things (res extensa) of nature, a study guided by the exact mathematical measurement of primary qualities like length, width, height, mass, and motion. Religion, on the other hand, was to retain responsibility for shaping the unearthly substance of the soul, providing moral guidance for existentially troubled thinking things (res cogitans) like us. Secondary qualities like color, sound, and taste were left to the free play of artists to be combined and recombined for the purpose of heightening the pleasure of appearances, rather than penetrating deeper into the archetypal dimensions of reality.37
In the intervening years since the scientific revolution, a new civilization guided by the ideals of the Enlightenment has taken root on every continent. By 1850, the values of industrial capitalism, justified by the mechanistic cosmology of scientific materialism, had infected much of the Western world, forever altering traditional forms of agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, communication, and religious practice. “[All] thought concerned with social organization,” writes Whitehead,
expressed itself in terms of material things and of capital. Ultimate values were excluded. They were politely bowed to, and then handed over to the clergy to be kept for Sundays. A creed of competitive business morality was evolved…entirely devoid of consideration for the value of…life. The workmen were conceived as mere hands, drawn from the pool of labor. To God’s question, men gave the answer of Cain– “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; and they incurred Cain’s guilt.38
Today, at the peak (if not the beginning of the decline) of humanity’s technoscientific mastery over nature, a coherent cosmology capable of guiding the adventure of civilization safely into the next millennium is just beginning to take root. Still, our knowledge remains fragmented, our society teetering on the brink of self- and world-destruction. What seemed like the cure for all ignorance in the 17th century has since become a curse. Our technoscientific way of knowing–constructed on the metaphysical assumption of the bifurcation of subject and object, fact and value, meaning and matter–threatens the continued existence of the community of life on earth.
Beginning in the early 1920s, Whitehead interrogated modern science and industrialism, not to dismiss them,39 but to remind them of what they had dismissed. He asks: “What has happened to us?” According to Stengers, this question is not an attempt to condemn scientific materialism for the wayward course of civilization, but is rather
a resource for telling our stories in another way, in a way that situates us otherwise–not as defined by the past, but as able, perhaps, to inherit from it another way.40
Whitehead’s creative retrieval of the history of natural philosophy is organized around a new concept of nature and a novel way of framing the activity of science. Instead of construing the task of science to be that of overcoming subjective illusion in order to reach objective reality, as many modern thinkers have done, Whitehead takes the speculative risk of defining nature otherwise: nature becomes, quite simply, “what we are aware of in perception.”41 “Everything perceived is in nature,” says Whitehead, “We may not pick and choose.”42 This reframing of science’s understanding of nature cannot be judged as “true” or “false” a priori; to judge it fairly, we must first trust it enough to take the “leap of the imagination”43 it implies, waiting eagerly to see in what way it transforms experience. Passing judgment on the veracity of Whitehead’s new concept of nature requires first deploying it, experimenting with its effects in the world, establishing its relevance to the values of actual life. Materialist enemies of his philosophy tend to lack the negative capability44 required to pursue the consequences of Whitehead’s unbifurcated image of the universe; they refuse to pay attention to what Whitehead’s concepts make important. Instead, they remain bound within the limits of the same old poorly composed problems (e.g., “how does the brain secrete consciousness?”, or “what sort of thing is curved space-time?”). Whitehead’s cosmology and philosophy of science require the invention and deployment of novel concepts of space, time, causality, and consciousness. These concepts pose new problems for science, allowing it to become attentive to the relevance of both quantitative patterns and qualitative perceptions in the passage of nature, releasing it from the irrational and polemical desire to replace concrete experience with abstract explanation. In this sense, Whitehead’s scientific method can be compared with Goethe’s “gentle empiricism,” which similarly rejected mechanical explanations, instead pursuing nature’s reasons by learning to participate more fully in the archetypal patterns interwoven with experience itself.45 “The divergence of [scientific] formulae about nature from the appearance of nature,” argues Whitehead, “has robbed the formulae of any explanatory character.”46
Equipped with a new kind of science, we can ask again, “What has happened to us?” We must be sensitive to both what Whitehead’s concept of nature discloses and what it makes recede into shadow. In what way does it transform the adventures of science and civilization? What becomes important when the task of natural philosophy is not to explain away value, meaning, and subjectivity at all costs, but rather to avoid the bifurcation of nature at all costs? Whitehead’s new concept of nature, should we commit ourselves to it, implies that
the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.47
Whitehead’s reframing of the task of science together with his redefinition of nature should not be construed as the imposition of limitations upon scientific knowledge. His aim is not to restrict what science can know, but to remind science what it already knows, and what its knowledge presupposes. By defining nature as “what we are aware of in perception,” Whitehead explicitly brackets “mind” (i.e., “that which perceives”) from nature. This bracketing is done in order to avoid struggling to answer badly formulated problems, such as the so-called “hard problem” of how the brain produces the mind. Posing such a problem immediately drags science into metaphysics, into reflection upon “both what is perceived and what perceives.”48 Metaphysics seeks after the nature of nature beyond what we are aware of in perception, and so pursuing such questions would negate the speculative wager whose consequences for experience Whitehead’s philosophy of science is trying to spell out. For now, says Whitehead, “we leave to metaphysics the synthesis of the knower and the known.”49 Later in his philosophical career, when he turns to full blown cosmological speculation, Whitehead will be forced to tackle such metaphysical issues; but in his early philosophy of science, he keeps his eye on the prize: a coherent foundation for our scientific knowledge of nature. From Whitehead’s re-imagined point of view, the questions of science “do not enable [it] to formulate the problem of the ‘mind’ because these questions and their answers presuppose it.”50 Science is a way of knowing nature; therefore, the pursuit of knowledge of nature presupposes that there is a knower, i.e., a mind.
Knowledge is ultimate. There can be no explanation of the “why” of knowledge; we can only describe the “what” of knowledge.51
If science is going to commit itself to the pursuit of knowledge of nature, there can be no going behind knowledge to explain it by some more fundamental activity (e.g., neurochemistry). The possibility of scientific explanation cannot itself be scientifically explained. Whitehead’s decision to bracket mind from what we are aware of in perception is not the same as the materialist’s decision to bifurcate nature into primary (physical-scientific) and secondary (psychological-aesthetic) qualities. Instead of turning science against commonsense experience through “heroic feats of explaining away,”52 Whitehead defines the truth of science in terms of its experimental achievements and experiential disclosures.53 The numinous glow of the sunset as experienced by the poet comes again to be rooted in nature, no less an aspect of what we come to be aware of in perception than the wavelengths of the photons detected by the sophisticated instrumentation of the physicist. The data of science, no matter how abstract and seemingly removed from everyday experience, must ultimately be translatable back into some operational technique or direct observation. “If the abstractions [of science] are well-founded,” says Whitehead,
that is to say, if they do not abstract from everything that is important in experience, the scientific thought which confines itself to these abstractions will arrive at a variety of important truths relating to our experience of nature.54
The “photon,” for example, is not just an invention of the physicist, nor is it simply a fact of nature. The photon is what the physicist has come to be aware of in his or her perception of light as a result of certain replicable experiments, laboratory technologies, theoretical images, and mathematical equations. The photon, as a scientific-object, is said to be abstract only in that it cannot be grasped in isolation from the “whole structure of events” or “field of activity” (i.e., the creative advance of nature) to which it belongs and through which it endures.55 From the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of science, the abstract will never be able to offer a satisfactory explanation for the concrete.56 The wavelength of a photon does not explain the perception of redness, nor does even a connectionist model of neurochemistry explain the artist’s aesthetic encounter with a beautiful sunset. Whenever scientific materialists try to provide such heroic explanations, they succeed only in offering descriptive commentaries in terms of the scientific objects most fashionable in their time–commentaries that presuppose the very thing they pretend to have explained away: consciousness. The only valid method of explanation from Whitehead’s point of view is the reverse of the materialist’s, an explanation which traces the genesis of abstractions back to the concrete consciousness and perceptual presences from which they emerged.57 A science that seeks to explain the concrete by way of the abstract all too easily falls prey to a form of knowledge production whose adequacy is judged instrumentally, i.e., in terms of its capacity to transform and control nature, rather than ecologically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to understand and relate to nature.
Whitehead’s aim in pursuing the philosophy of science was largely in service of pragmatic experience and commonsense: he sought to leap across and straddle the fissure bifurcating nature into the facts of physical reality on the one side and the values of psychical appearance on the other.58 In order to achieve this end, he struggled to imagine a participatory mode of attending to nature–a nature no longer objectified into the inert stuff instrumentally manipulated by an alienated technoscientific mode of knowing. Instead, Whitehead sought to disclose nature to awareness as a community of relationships shaped by the social desires and individual decisions of living organisms. Organisms cannot be characterized merely by mass, extension, and velocity; they are creatures enjoying the value of their own experience, which itself is initially inherited from the feelings of others. Contrary to Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, Whitehead’s vision of the cosmos is ecological: the final real things are individual living organisms, each dependent on their relationships to others for their continued existence as themselves.
By the late 1920s, Whitehead had given up on the problems that framed his earlier inquiry into the philosophy of science in order to pursue the riskier adventure of metaphysics. “Riskier” because “the recourse to metaphysics is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena.”59 For the later, more explicitly metaphysical Whitehead, “mind” can no longer be bracketed from a neatly delimited “nature.” The imaginative enjoyment of the poet and the intellectual reflection of the theoretician resulting from the beauty of the setting sun must themselves be understood as ingredient in the creative advance of the universe. Mind must find its foothold in the midst of things themselves, an inhabitant of nature and not its transcendental knower. In the next section, I further unpack Whitehead’s venture beyond the philosophy of science into the formidable project of constructing a coherent cosmology justifying the civilized phases of human society.
25 Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (Garden City, New York: Double Day, 1961), bk. 3, lines 1-4.
26 Plato, Timaeus, 47b-c.
27 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 178.
28 Plato, Timaeus, 45a-d.
29 Plato, Timaeus, 47a
30 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 38.
31 Arthur Zajonc, Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 21. Plato’s cosmology’s only serious challenger was Aristotle.
32 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 13.
33 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 13.
34 Galileo Galilei, The Assayer, transl. Stillman Drake, in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (New York: Doubleday, 1623/1957), 274.
35 Galileo, The Assayer, 274.
36 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920/1964), 31.
37 Prior to the differentiation of art, science and religion in the modern period, art served primarily a religious function as a sort of window from the earthly into the archetypal realm (see Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 20). Art also served science by mastering perspective, allowing for realistic representations of nature (see ibid., 45).
38 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 181.
39 “I assume as an axiom that science is not a fairy tale” (Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 40).
40 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 14.
41 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 28.
42 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.
43 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.
44 See John Keats’ letter to his brothers, December 21, 1817: “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”
45 Zajonc, Catching the Light, 203.
46 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 154.
47 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 154.
48 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 34-36.
49 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 28.
50 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 35.
51 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 32.
52 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.
53 Or in William James’ terms (a major influence on Whitehead), scientific truth becomes subject to the tests of pragmatism and radical empiricism, respectively.
54 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.
55 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 170-171.
56 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 99.
57 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 110.
58 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 38.
59 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.
Here’s a hyperlinked outline of a long essay on Whitehead and scientific cosmology that I’ll post in sections. Here is a link to a PDF of the complete essay: Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of A. N. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology
Table of Contents
This is a talk I gave back in September for my colleagues at CIIS during our annual retreat to Esalen in Big Sur, CA.
Thinking with Whitehead:
The Scientific Revolution and the Bifurcation of Nature
The scientific revolution, beginning perhaps with Copernicus’ rediscovery of the heliocentric model of the solar system early in the 16th century, and culminating perhaps with Newton’s formulation of the laws of motion and universal gravitation towards the end of the 17th century, fundamentally transformed humanity’s sense of its relationship to the universe. “In the year 1500,” writes Whitehead, “Europe knew less than Archimedes who died in the year 212 BCE.”1 The commonsense assumption of a person living in 1500 was that earth stood stationary at the center of a sacred series of eternally circling heavenly hosts. Below the moon, four elements composed everything; above it, something far subtler was thought to be at work. “Yet in the year 1700,” continues Whitehead, “Newton’s Principia had been written and the world was well started on the modern epoch.”2 Earth was thrown into motion, now a planet like any other, a material body wandering through the void of space around the sun. After a mere two centuries of furious intellectual upheaval, the entire theological basis of European civilization, built up over the course of the prior two millennia, was thrashed to pieces. A new civilization, and a new cosmos, was dawning.
Three hundred years later, we find ourselves at or nearing the noon hour of modern industrial civilization. At the highest point of the arc of the modern project, we can see clearly the historical morning behind us, full of even more war and empire than the prior millennia of supposedly un-Enlightened races; and we can see clearly enough before us the inevitable future course leading to our demise: nuclear war, ecosystem collapse, political tyranny. Among academics, the optimistic certainty of our fathers’ deistic-mechanistic image of the world has been succeeded by the cynical irony of postmodern relativism.3 Though the deistic-mechanistic mythos of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton was persuasive to a few educated elites, and though its technological utility would be responsible for unleashing an energy-transformation event unlike any the earth had seen before, it has not provided a meaning-producing, value-imbued cosmological story capable of infecting the social imaginary at a deep enough level to replace that provided to medieval European civilization by Aquinas and Dante.
Despite the evidences of modern physical science, a normal 21st century person still unhesitatingly refers to the setting of the sun, to the red hues of its surrounding sky, and to the waning of its warmth as it sinks beneath the horizon. From the perspective of the well-trained mathematical physicist, such a person’s commonsense is mistaken: the sun does not set, nor is it warm, nor is its ambiance red. Its sinking, like its warmth and color, are only subjective appearances, artifacts of our perception and not facts of nature. “If the living creature were removed,” says Galileo, the first to formalize nature’s bifurcation in terms of primary physical and secondary psychical characteristics, “all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.”4 The warmth and hue of a sunset, according to Galileo, “are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned.”5 They reside not in the essential nature of the cosmos, but in the arbitrary names consciousness.
Following Copernicus’ and Galileo’s astronomical and physical discoveries, Descartes brilliantly articulated the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of modern science. The eclipse of the illusory geocentric cosmos by the mathematical truth of the heliocentric model made it clear to Descartes that sensory perception could not be trusted for scientific purposes. Science was to become the study of the mechanical “how?” of extended things (res extensa), a study guided by the exact mathematical measurement of primary qualities like length, width, height, mass, and motion; religion, on the other hand, was to retain responsibility for shaping the substance of the soul, providing answers to the moral “why?” questions that trouble thinking things (res cogitans). Secondary qualities like color, sound, and taste were left to the free play of artists to be combined and recombined for the purpose of heightening the pleasure of appearances, rather than penetrating deeper into the archetypal sources of reality.6
In the intervening years since the scientific revolution, a new civilization guided by the ideals of the Enlightenment has taken root on every continent. But even today, at the height of humanity’s technoscientific7 mastery over nature, a coherent cosmology has not yet arisen to guide the adventure of civilization safely into the next millennium. Our knowledge remains fragmented, our society teetering on the brink of self- and world-destruction. What seemed like the cure for all ignorance in the 17th century has since become a curse. Our technoscientific way of knowing, with its bifurcation of subjects and objects, facts and values, meaning and matter, is killing humanity and earth alike. As late as 1882, Nietzsche was still one of only a handful with the spiritual courage to confront the cosmic disorientation characteristic of the modern age and to cry out on behalf of life:
…how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?8
Whitehead came to philosophy in the first quarter of the 20th century with questions very similar to Nietzsche’s. He interrogated modern science and the Enlightenment, not to dismiss them, but to remind them of what they had dismissed. He asks: “What has happened to us?” According to his interpreter, Isabelle Stengers, this question is not an attempt to find some final explanation for the wayward course of civilization, but is rather
a resource for telling our stories in another way, in a way that situates us otherwise–not as defined by the past, but as able, perhaps, to inherit from it another way.9
Whitehead’s creative retrieval of the history of science and philosophy (natural philosophy) is organized around a new concept of nature and a novel way of framing the activity of science. Instead of construing the task of science as that of overcoming subjective illusion in order to reach objective reality, as many modern thinkers have done, Whitehead takes the speculative risk of defining nature differently: nature becomes, quite simply, “what we are aware of in perception.”10 “Everything perceived is in nature,” says Whitehead, “We may not pick and choose.”11 This reframing of science’s understanding of nature cannot be judged as “true” or “false” a priori; to judge it fairly, we must first trust it enough to take the “leap of the imagination”12 it implies, waiting eagerly to see how it transforms experience. Passing judgment on the veracity of Whitehead’s new concept of nature requires first deploying it, experimenting with its effects in the world, establishing its relevance to actual life. The materialist enemies of his philosophy tend to lack the negative capability13 required to pursue the consequences of Whitehead’s unbifurcated image of the universe; they refuse to pay attention to what Whitehead’s concepts make important. Instead, they remain bound within the limits of the same old poorly composed problems (e.g., “how does the brain produce consciousness?”, “what sort of stuff is space-time?”). Whitehead’s cosmology requires the invention and deployment of novel concepts of space, time, and consciousness. These concepts pose new problems for science, allowing it to become attentive to the importance of both mathematical patterns and sensual perceptions in nature, releasing it from the irrational and polemical desire to explain away mental quality by reduction to mathematical quantity.
Equipped with a new kind of science, we can ask again, “What has happened to us?” We must be sensitive to both what Whitehead’s concept of nature discloses and what it makes recede into silence. How does it transform the adventures of science and civilization? What becomes important when the task of natural philosophy is not to explain away value, meaning, and subjectivity at all costs, but rather to avoid the bifurcation of nature at all costs? Whitehead’s new concept of nature, should we commit ourselves to it, implies that
the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.14
Whitehead’s reframing of the task of science together with his redefinition of nature should not be construed as the imposition of limitations upon scientific knowledge. His aim is not to restrict what science can know, but to remind science what it already knows, and what its knowledge presupposes. By defining nature as “what we are aware of in perception,” Whitehead explicitly brackets “mind” (i.e., “that which perceives”) from nature. This bracketing is done in order to avoid struggling to answer badly formulated problems, such as the problem of how the brain produces the mind. Posing such a problem immediately drags science into metaphysics, into reflection upon “both what is perceived and what perceives.”15 Metaphysics seeks after the nature of nature beyond what we are aware of in perception, and so pursuing such questions would negate the philosophical wager whose consequences for experience Whitehead is trying to discover. Later in his philosophical career, when he turns to full blown cosmological speculation, Whitehead will be forced to tackle such metaphysical issues; but in his early philosophy of science, he keeps his eye on the prize: scientific knowledge of nature. From Whitehead’s reformulated point of view, the questions of science “do not enable [it] to formulate the problem of the ‘mind’ because these questions and their answers presuppose it.”16 Science is a way of knowing nature; therefore, the pursuit of knowledge of nature presupposes that there is a knower, i.e., a mind.
Knowledge is ultimate. There can be no explanation of the “why” of knowledge; we can only describe the “what” of knowledge.17
If science is going to commit itself to the pursuit of knowledge of nature, there can be no going behind knowledge to explain it by some more fundamental activity (e.g., neurochemistry). The possibility of explanation cannot itself be explained. This is not to say that science might not find out a great deal about the mind by studying the brain; its just that it makes no sense to seek a cranial explanation of the mind when it is before the mind itself that science would have to defend its explanation. Whitehead’s decision to bracket mind from what we are aware of in perception is not the same as the materialist’s decision to bifurcate nature into primary (physical-scientific) and secondary (psychological-artistic) qualities. Whitehead’s refusal to drag the scientific concept of nature unknowingly into the metaphysical disputes of philosophy (as materialists do) prevents him from reducing the creative advance of natura naturans to the deterministic mechanisms of natura naturata. Instead of turning science against common sense experience through “heroic feats of explaining away,”18 Whitehead defines the truth of science in terms of its experimental achievements and experiential disclosures.19 The numinous glow of the sunset as experienced by the poet comes again to be rooted in nature, no less an aspect of what we come to be aware of in perception than the wavelengths of the photons detected by the sophisticated instrumentation of the physicist. The data of science, no matter how abstract and seemingly removed from everyday experience, must ultimately be translatable back into some operational technique or direct observation. “If the abstractions [of science] are well-founded,” says Whitehead,
that is to say, if they do not abstract from everything that is important in experience, the scientific thought which confines itself to these abstractions will arrive at a variety of important truths relating to our experience of nature.20
The “photon,” for example, is not just an invention of the physicist, nor is it simply a fact of nature. The “photon” is what the physicist has come to be aware of in his perception of light as a result of certain replicable scientific practices, laboratory situations, theoretical images, and mathematical equations. The “photon,” as a scientific-object, is said to be abstract only in that it cannot be grasped in isolation from the “whole structure of events” or “field of activity” (i.e., the passage of nature) to which it belongs and through which it endures.21 From the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of science, the abstract will never be able to offer a satisfactory explanation for the concrete.22 The wavelength of a photon does not explain the perception of redness, nor does even a connectionist model of neurochemistry explain the artist’s encounter with a beautiful sunset. Whenever scientific materialists try to offer such heroic explanations, they succeed only in offering descriptive commentaries in terms of the scientific objects most fashionable in their time–commentaries that presuppose the very thing they pretend to have explained away: consciousness. The only valid method of explanation from Whitehead’s point of view is the reverse of the materialist’s, an explanation which traces the genesis of abstractions back to the concrete consciousness and perceptual presences from which they emerged.23 A science that seeks to explain the concrete by way of the abstract all too easily falls prey to a form of knowledge production whose adequacy is judged economically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to transform and control nature (usually for private profit), rather than ecologically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to understand and relate to nature (for the common good).
Whitehead’s aim in pursuing the philosophy of science was largely in service of pragmatic experience and common sense: he sought to leap across and straddle the fissure bifurcating nature into the facts of physical reality on the one side and the values of psychical appearance on the other.24 In order to achieve this end, he struggled to imagine a new, participatory mode of attending to nature, a nature no longer objectified into the inert stuff instrumentally attended to as in the alienated technoscientific mode of knowing; instead, Whitehead sought to disclose nature to awareness as a community of relationships shaped by the social desires and individual decisions of living organisms. Organisms are beings characterized by more than mass, extension, and velocity; they are beings with presence, prehension, and purpose. Contrary to Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, Whitehead’s vision of the cosmos is ecological: the final real things are each and all alive.
Eventually, Whitehead gave up on the problems that framed his inquiry into science in order to pursue the riskier adventure of metaphysics. Riskier because “the recourse to metaphysics is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena.”25 For the later, more explicitly metaphysical Whitehead, “mind” can no longer be bracketed from a neatly delimited “nature.” Even the aesthetic enjoyment of the poet and the theoretical reflection of the physicist must be understood as ingredient in the creative advance of the universe. Whitehead would venture upon the great work of every true and genuine philosopher-poet: the creation of a coherent cosmology justifying the civilized phases of human society.
1 Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925/1960), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 13.
3 We have only the insufficiently cosmological depth of the great archetypal psychologists to lead us through the maddening maze of “posts” populating the contemporary academic scene (Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Hillman).
4 Galileo Galilei, The Assayer (1623), translation by Stillman Drake, in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (1957), New York: Doubleday, 274.
6 Prior to the differentiation of art, science and religion in the modern period, art served primarily a religious purpose, functioning as a sort of window from the earthly into the archetypal realm. See also Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 20. Art also served science by mastering perspective, allowing for realistic representations of nature (ibid., 45).
7 Unlike traditional science, still the cousin of philosophy, which sought to “confer an intelligible order on what confronts us,” for technoscience “to understand is to be able to transform” (Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 11).
8 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), sec. 125, translation by Walter Kaufmann, in The Nietzsche Reader (2006), Malden: Blackwell, 224.
9 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 14.
10 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (1920/1964), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 28.
11 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.
12 Whitehead, Process and Reality (1929/1978), New York: The Free Press, 4.
13 See John Keats’ letter to his brothers, December 21, 1817: “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”
15 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 34-36.
16 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 35.
17 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 32.
18 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.
19 Or, in William James’ terms (a major influence on Whitehead), scientific truth becomes subject to the tests of pragmatism and radical empiricism, respectively.
20 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.
21 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 170-171.
22 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 99.
23 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 110.
24 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 38.
25 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.