Process, Relationality, and Individuality: Graham Harman and Alfred Norht Whitehead (response to Jonathan Cobb)

Relevant links to the argument between me, Levi Bryant, and Graham Harman:

Levi Bryant Mis-reading Whitehead?

Harman’s response to me

Whitehead’s Process Atomism (Response to Graham Harman)

Object as subject-superject, or why Harman is wrong about Whitehead

Occasionalism in Whitehead and Harman

Harman’s Crucified Objects and Whitehead’s God: More on Withdrawal

 

 

Whitehead’s Divine Function (response to Knowledge Ecology)

Adam/Knowledge Ecology has responded to my comment about the role of the divine in Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. Let me say at the get go that Whitehead himself acknowledged that he didn’t sufficiently work out the relationship between God and the World in Process and Reality. I approach Whitehead’s scheme, then, as a hacker might go to work on a buggy program, casting aside what doesn’t work and building on what seems most promising. I think there is something profound about his underlying intuition concerning the divine’s power as that of a persuader, rather than a coercer, even if his explicit formulations seem to fall short of a coherent description of how exactly this would play out metaphysically.

Whitehead’s dipolar deity is intended to be a derivative notion of his conceptual categories. He had far more to say about God’s primordial pole than God’s consequent pole; he mentions the latter only a handful of times, always obscurely, while the former, the primordial pole, fits relatively clearly into his conceptual apparatus as that which values a definite set of eternal objects to provide the aesthetic lures that are the condition for the possibility of a cosmos. God’s primordial nature is eternal and so conditions Creativity, translating its immensity into something that finite actual occasions can decide upon and enjoy as distinct qualitative moments of experience. God’s consequent nature, in turn, is conditioned by Creativity: despite God’s attempt to restrain its relentlessly blind rush toward novelty, Creativity nonetheless breaks through to disturb the ordered universe as the freedom of each finite actual entity to decide upon its own subjective form. Creativity is the constant disruption of the constancy that would otherwise reign over things from eternity. God isn’t just eternal, but also has a consequent pole, which is God’s passive reception of Creativity in the form of the free decisions of all actualities. In God’s consequent pole, God becomes a fellow sufferer with all other creatures in the trammels of physical time.

Perhaps “God”–a term weighed down by thousands of years of ontotheological baggge–is no longer appropriate as a descriptor. Whitehead suggests that his divinity is more like ancient conceptions of a World-Soul, or anima mundi, in that it is involved in and not external to the universe. Indeed, it is in some sense nothing other than the universe itself as a social actuality, or organismic togetherness. The divine is the cosmic animal, the universal organism.

Part of the reason Whitehead was lead to posit a divine function was that he saw no other way to coherently speak cosmologically. If there is no superordinate principle of valuation to bring all finite occasions into harmony, there is no cosmos. There is only the multitude of finite entities. Granted, the harmonious ordering of the universe so miraculously uncovered by the last several centuries of scientific investigation may be entirely contingent. Whitehead’s God is, after all, an accident of Creativity. There is nothing necessary about harmony. What, then, is responsible for an admittedly contingent harmony? Divinity cannot be marshaled as an explanation here, a move that is often and rightly criticized. There is a principle of irreducibility at work in Whitehead similar to that at work in object-oriented ontology described by Adam. For one entity or set of entities to explain another is akin to reducing the explained entity away. Whitehead’s philosophical method has nothing to do with explanation. He describes the task of philosophy as “sheer disclosure,” making it akin to poetry in the sense that its propositional expressions succeed only when they increase, rather than erase, our wonder at the astonishing fact(s) of existence.

To return to the question, then: what is responsible for the contingent order of the universe? Whitehead, like OOO, re-constructed causality in terms of aesthetics. Entities relate to one another erotically, not simply mechanically. All physical motion, active or passive, is emotion. Mechanical interaction is secondary to organic transaction, which is to say that internal relations supersede external relations. Every entity is quite literally inside of every other entity. A tension is generated within this mutual interiorization due to the desire of each entity to exist in and for itself apart from others, which is where the explosion of qualities described so beautifully by Harman (as a “sensual ether”) comes in. So, wherefrom harmony and order? From the erotic lure of beauty calling to each actuality non-coercively compelling it to dance in rhythm with its local nexus. Of course, notes of dissonance are often sounded amidst the song of the spheres, but at least (so far) on the macro scale, these dissonances have been gathered back up into a cosmic chord. For 14 billion years, cosmogenesis has remained harmonious enough to utilize disruption and chaos as an engine for the generation of higher forms of organization again and again. The dissonances erupting within the microcosm of human society are somewhat more troubling… Whitehead’s solution to the problem of evil is celebrated by many process theologians, but as I continue to study Schelling (who seems to have taken the difficulty of theodicy more seriously), its becoming apparent that perhaps more needs to be said about the proclivity of humanity to swerve away so drastically from cosmic harmony.  A problem for another post, perhaps… The ontological dimension of evil is admittedly an embarrassing issue to approach in a modern age as self-consciously philanthropic as ours.

Philosophy, society, politics and the decline of America

Jason/Immanence Transcendence brought my attention to this critique of Graham Harman‘s Object-Oriented Ontology. The critique, written by Alexander Galloway, complains that OOO’s lack of a political dimension makes it a nonstarter as a groundwork for philosophizing in public. In today’s global context, where neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have collided (and colluded) to bring Starbucks to Baghdad, I’d agree with Galloway that “a philosophy without a political theory is no philosophy at all.” Other thinkers associated with OOO, like Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects, have written about political questions far more extensively than Harman (which Galloway mentions), but I remain unconvinced that either Bryant’s politics or his ethical theory necessarily follow from his ontology. Bryant and I have discussed this underdetermination in the past in relation to his appropriation of Brassier’s ontology of extinction.

A rather boisterous discussion erupted among commenters beneath Galloway’s critique. Some were upset by Harman’s dismissive responses (HERE, HERE, and HERE), and took the opportunity to vent their frustration with how some in the OOO blogosphere seem unable to play nice with others. Jason made several substantive comments about moral nominalism in response to Bryant. His comments reminded me of a post made late last year on the same issue. Both are worth reading.

On a more personal note, since Tuesday I’ve been visiting my mother’s side of the family in Cincinnati, OH. I live in a bit of an political bubble in San Francisco surrounded by an eclectic mix of eco-Marxist radicals and psychedelic shamans. My trip to the post-industrial wasteland that is the tri-state area (Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky) has given me an opportunity to reflect on the sad state of American society. I visited my cousin and her two young daughters Tuesday evening and ended up talking politics and religion with her husband until 3AM. He served in Iraq with the Army for almost a year back in 2004-5. Despite his desire to continue to serve in some capacity, a knee injury prevented him from being redeployed to Iraq. His commanding officer gave him an ultimatum: suffer through the pain in combat or get the hell out of the Army. He was discharged, but not before being diagnosed by military doctors with “axis-2 PTSD.” Axis-2 is APA-speak for a form of PTSD compounded with a personality disorder of some type, which in my cousin-in-law’s case involves “sociopathic tendencies.” These tendencies were less noticeable to me this visit than they were 3 years ago (my last visit), but clearly he still hasn’t adequately re-adjusted to civilian life upon returning from war. One clue was the way he checked to see if a few Hot Pockets were cooked all the way through: pulling them out of the oven, he found the largest knife in the kitchen and preceded to forcefully disembowel them. Another clue is the room-sized armory he keeps behind lock and key upstairs.

He is certainly not an anomaly. At least 20% of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are diagnosed with PTSD. Particularly disturbing is the fact that, among female soldiers, more than 70% develop PTSD as a result of being sexually assaulted by other soldiers. I suggested to my cousin-in-law that the prevalence of PTSD is no surprise, since even before stepping foot in a war zone, basic training is in large part designed to prepare recruits for a sociopathic situation. He preceded to describe the rules of engagement issued to every soldier on a small laminated card. Basically, no one is to be trusted: even innocent looking women and children could have bombs strapped to them or have been instructed to shield shooters in public areas. Soldiers must be ready to kill anyone at any moment.

Our conversation drifted to domestic politics by way of my outrage over defense spending (if you include the “police actions” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East, defense accounts for more than half of all government spending). My cousin-in-law is rather conservative, though I have a feeling his political opinions come straight out of the mouth of a hand full of AM radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. For the most part, he is against anything and everything the big bad “government” wants to do, aside from build bombs and wage wars. I brought up the ecological crisis as something states, corporations, and individuals cannot respond to adequately without some sort of top-down influence from government. He was willing to admit that the EPA should regulate some forms of pollution, but he doesn’t think human beings are capable of changing the climate of the whole planet or driving other species into extinction. That scientific consensus considers climate change and mass extinction to be plain as day facts verified by empirical data hardly matters, since such scientists are just part of a vast liberal conspiracy to destroy the American dream and take over the world.

Needless to say, I was frustrated by the content of our conversation, even though the form was cordial enough. It’s made me realize that political discourse is way messier than most ontologies let on. I think the panexperiential process ontology I’ve been trying to develop on this blog with help from Schelling and Whitehead certainly has political implications [see Adam/Knowledge-Ecology’s recent post on panpsychism and politics], but how am I to justify these implications to someone who could care less about the abstract forms of reasoning characteristic of metaphysics? What do the negative determinations of the understanding or the constitutive relationality of finite actual occasions have to do with securing a job and raising a family? Blue collar Americans are more skeptical of the intellectual classes than ever before. I think Rick Santorum was basically correct when he said that a college education leads to liberalism. Unfortunately, college is too expensive for most blue collar students, and anyways, liberalism rests upon some Enlightenment assumptions about Reason and its relationship to Nature that make absolutely no sense to me philosophically. Indeed, these assumptions seem to be causally related to the social and ecological ills of our civilization. I just don’t know if we have another 300 years to wait for today’s subversive ontologies to trickle down into our legal and political discourse.

I think the philosophically-inclined political activist’s best bet is something like what Bruno Latour is doing with “political art.” As Schelling argued long ago, art is the eternal organon of philosophy, since only it is capable of making reason sensuous and mythology rational.

The Varieties of Causal Experience

Michael over at Archive-Fire has a new post up distinguishing his notion of epistemic withdrawal from Harman’s ontological withdrawal. While claiming to hold tight to an embodied account of mind, Michael nonetheless wants to carve out a distinction between two kinds of interaction: mental and physical. Mental interaction is always detached and abstract due to its linguistic and imaginal intangibility, while physical interaction is direct because it involves structural contact between entities. Michael accepts the generally Kantian construal of the real as existing forever beyond human knowledge: things withdraw absolutely, but only from our knowledge. Physically, when I grab my coffee mug, the atoms in my fingers are in direct physical contact with the electrons orbiting the atoms of which it is composed. Such physical relations, according to Michael, are causal, while mental relations are symbolic.

I discussed the difference between realism and materialism in this post last week. I affirmed an organic realism, and tried to explain why I reject both materialism and idealism, since each seems self-contradictory on its own. Follow the former to its final conclusions and you end up with the latter, and vice versa [For example, if our knowledge is forever limited, when we speak of the electron orbitals of atoms, are we not speaking of our conceptual models of matter, rather than matter in itself? If we can’t know what matter really is, what justifies our speaking of direct contact? Isn’t this just a subtle form of idealism?]. Michael describes his position as a kind of non-reductive materialism, leaning on the concept of emergence to account for mentality. I find emergence an indispensable concept for understanding evolutionary leaps like that from molecules to cells, or from single cells to multicellular life; but these are examples of organizational/structural emergence. I do not think emergence can account for mind in an otherwise merely material universe (“merely” material as in not the prehensive matter of Whiteheadian ontology). The emergence of mind would not simply represent the emergence of a more complex organizational structure, but an entirely new ontological domain. Is it really sufficient to say that mind emerges from otherwise insensate matter simply because that matter is structurally organized in a new way? I am unconvinced.

Instead of defining mind as essentially a linguistic phenomenon, as Michael does, I’d suggest that mind is primarily affective in nature. That is, thinking is an especially refined kind of feeling (a feeling of feelings, if you will). Rather than separate cognition and causality, I’d follow Whitehead’s illuminating distinction between “presentational immediacy” and “causal efficacy.” Whitehead critiques Hume’s account of sensory experience using this distinction: Hume’s analysis of his experience of, say, a glass cup in terms of raw sensory universals like “whiteness,” “roundness,” etc., Whitehead argues is actually derived from a more fundamental, causal mode of experience. Hume’s analysis of sensory experience remains on the level of “presentational immediacy,” which for Whitehead is a very rare, high grade mode of experience especially perfected by reflective, language-using human beings. Most of the time, we interact with the world via bodily perception, which is to say, we feel the causal force of the world directly and respond without having to break up that world into its raw sensory components. Hume’s analysis of experience is too abstract, which is why he ends up having to jettison causality all together. Whitehead notes Hume’s realization that we see the cup with our eyes, suggesting that he was close to grasping the causal efficacy of the body. But alas, Hume did not think through the implications of the causal efficacy of his body, the way causation was the condition making possible his abstract analysis of experience in terms of sensory universals. [See this post for a more in depth account of Whitehead’s response to Hume].

“Mind” and “matter” are dreadfully vague words, but when I speak of “mind” above, I am referring to everything from sensuality to conceptuality. Mind is anything that requires awareness. Surely, there are forms of awareness that are not linguistic. The feeling of another’s gaze, or of the wind moving the hair across your forehead, for instance. On the other hand, from the perspective of a pansemiotic paradigm (Peirce, or more recently, Hoffmeyer), all relations could be construed as sign interpretation.

Michael mentions Whitehead’s panpsychism as one of Harman’s “background assumptions,” but I don’t think its quite fair to call this an assumption. On the contrary, adopting some varient of panpsychism is the result of much conceptual struggle with mind-matter dualism.

Knowledge takes place at the level of abstract significations. And signification involves very different processes than those involved in basic physical interactions.

This has been a standard distinction since at least Descartes. But when faced with the intractable issue of having to account for mind, or even just basic sensation, in a universe otherwise composed of dead matter, what is to prevent us from re-thinking our ontology (a la Whitehead)? I’ve offered some reasons for rejecting the emergentist account of mind; I’d be curious to know Michael’s reasons for rejecting the panexperientialist account.

Occasionalism in Whitehead and Harman

An important discussion continues to unfold in the comment section of this post over at Knowledge-Ecology. We are trying to figure out what metaphysical work Whitehead’s eternal objects do, among other things.

Here is my last comment:

I think Whitehead gives you withdrawal without returning to an ontology of substances. Adam and I have been trying to figure this out for months, and I will admit that Whitehead does sometimes seem to reduce occasions to their relations, since in time (and his is a process metaphysics after all), no occasion or society of occasions ever remains identical to itself. There are no enduring substances, only enduring societies.

However, withdrawal can be saved due to the technical features of Whitehead’s system. Whitehead risks a set of abstractions by analyzing an indivisible moment of concrescence into its component parts. An occasion can be said to be withdrawn from its relations at a certain point in the process: just before it passes over from a subject to a superject; precisely when its relations are self-characterized or decided upon as the complex character of eternal objects to be included in its experience, there and then it is withdrawn from every other occasion. At this slice of time in the process of concrescence, abstractly analyzed, the occasion is dipping below the surface into eternity while still riding upon the wave of time. The “who” experiencing the world in this or that way at the molten core of the occasion is God; and though allured by the world, and the world by it, God is withdrawn from direct contact with it. God isn’t making a totally free decision in any given occasion, since it must deal with the emotional consequences of prior occasions.

We should not forget Harman’s fascination with occasionalism.

We all want some kind of withdrawal… the question for me is whether we want to bring back substance ontology or theology in order to get it. I’d rather do theology, maybe only because I’m more of a Platonist than an Aristotelian.

Here’s a Platonist for you:

“…every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany, that is, a divine apparition. For…the more secretly it is understood, the closer it is seen to approach the divine brilliance. Hence the inaccessible brilliance of the celestial powers is often called by theology ‘Darkness.’”
– John Scotus Eriugena, Periphyseon

Further evidence that Whitehead was already object-oriented…

From his 1927 lectures published as Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect.

While speaking about the way ordinary language can mislead us about the nature of reality, Whitehead begins reflecting on the common term “wall.”

“This so-called ‘wall,’ disclosed in the pure modes of presentational immediacy, contributes itself to our experience only under the guise of spatial extension, combined with spatial perspective, and combined with sense-data which in this example reduce to color alone. I say that the wall contributes itself under this guise, in preference to saying that it contributes these universal characters in combination. For the characters are combined by their exposition of one thing in a common world including ourselves, that one thing in which I call the ‘wall.’ Our perception is not confined to universal characters; we do not perceive disembodied color or disembodied extensiveness: we perceive the wall’s color and extensiveness. The experienced fact is ‘color away on the wall for us.’ Thus the color and the spatial perspective are abstract elements, characterizing the concrete way in which the wall enters into our experience. They are therefore relational elements between the ‘percipient at that moment,’ and that other equally actual entity, or set of entities, which we call the ‘wall at that moment.’ But the mere color and the mere spatial perspective are very abstract entities, because they are only arrived at by discarding the concrete relationship between the-wall-at-that-moment and the percipient-at-that-moment. This concrete relationship is a physical fact which may be very unessential to the wall and very essential to the percipient. The spatial relationship is equally essential both to wall and percipient: but the color side of the relationship is at that moment indifferent to the wall, though it is part of the make-up of the percipient. In this sense, and subject to their spatial relationship, contemporary events happen independently. I call this type of experience ‘presentational immediacy.’ It expresses how contemporary events are relevant to each other, and yet preserve a mutual independence. This relevance amid independence is the peculiar character of contemporaneousness. This presentational immediacy is only of importance is high-grade organisms, and is a physical fact which may, or may not, enter into consciousness. Such entry will depend on attention and on the activity of conceptual functioning, whereby physical experience and conceptual imagination are fused into knowledge” (p. 15-16).

Knowledge-Ecology on Alphonso Lingis: Cosmopolitical Selfhood and Ecology

Adam has posted a brilliant reflection on A. Lingis’ words about words. A few highlights:

  • “…words act as objects in the world and the manner by which they act is ecological. Words transform not just the environments which they disclose, but also feedback upon the one who uses them, transforming the subjectivity of the speaker in an ongoing and recursive way.”
  • “Words and worlds are indeed linked as independently existing, interactive actualities. The ontology which describes this relation is object-oriented. The ethics which organize the goals of such an inquiry are cosmopolitical. The way forward is ecological.”
I haven’t read much of Lingis’ work myself, but I’ve already been convinced, by Adam and others, that he is a luminary. He seems to me to have successfully melded art and science into cosmological poetry, in a way not unlike that other telluric poet, David Abram (see Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology). While I agree with Adam that words and worlds are co-enactive actualities, and that the earth and cosmos ought to be the model for our civilization, I am drawn more to the process-relational metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead and the powers ontology of Schelling than I am to the contemporary object-oriented ontologies of Bryant or Harman (Tim Morton’s version, which to me seems closer to the Romantic spirit of Schelling and Whitehead, is another story, but again, I haven’t yet been able to delve into his writing). I would seek a metaphysics that is no more object-oriented than subject-oriented. I would seek a metaphysics oriented toward the Absolute, toward God, that which is both subject and object and neither subject or object; a metaphysics open to Being itself, the IS!, the I AM!, at the root of all things. This is, after all, what language itself would tell us. The Big Other, the thing that every word in our language ultimately signifies if you trace its definition back far enough, is God, YHWH, the I am, which is also the Itself. Language is the creator of subject and object, of self and world, of word and reality.
The cosmopolitical issue, if we can call it that, is one of awakening to the mutual penetration of individual creativity and infinite universality. How am I to live in a city of people, like myself, in a universe so much older and wiser than we are? Not only does this require an ecological re-orientation, so as to bring modern humanity, organized according to the needs of empire, closer to the organization of ancient egalitarian kinship societies; the cosmopolitical task also requires a re-engagement with the deep wisdom of the cosmos, which consists of not just spiritual revelations regarding the eternal divine but scientific discoveries regarding the 14-billion year history of the visible universe.
Indisputably, the way forward is indeed ecological. Logos must be re-minded of and re-embedded in the Bodies within which it was born and into which it will die. Philosophy must become symphilosophy, as Schlegel suggested; our symbols must be made symbionts with the growing earth, seeds for its further flourishing.

Towards a Cosmotheandric Re-orientation: Response to Knowledge-Ecology

Adam Robbert over at Knowledge-Ecology recently responded to After Nature’s (Leon Niemoczynski) post on anthrodecentrism in Object-Oriented Ontology. I’ve visited this topic several times lately, but I’d have to admit that I seem to have failed to fully develop my own position in regards to the place of the human in the universe.

What I have suggested thus far is that we make a distinction between the particular earthly species we call Homo sapiens and a universal anthropic evolutionary potential, or Anthropos, characterized by its archetypal intelligence and compassion. The Anthropos is not yet an actual being, but remains a possible being. Teilhard de Chardin calls this being the Omega toward which cosmic evolution inevitably tends. I am not always able to muster the same metaphysical optimism that Teilhard does, but I am unable to shake the sneaking suspicion that the continuity of human civilization ultimately depends upon each individual’s faith in the possibility of realizing the absolute wisdom and love of the Anthropos. Civilized life is predicated on the assumption that our species, at least at its scientific and spiritual best, represents a unique example of a universal anthropic tendency intrinsic to cosmogenesis. Without faith in this highest human potential, I believe we simply lose the will necessary to live together peacefully on earth. Without an anthropic orientation, in other words, our ethicality and zest for life (as Teilhard calls it) would shrivel and die within a generation or two. Indeed, I think European civilization is growing precariously close to the death of belief in the Anthropos, just as it has already killed God. Perhaps now, in our thoroughly disenchanted historical moment, all that is left to us as a “live option” (as William James would say) is the Cosmos; but even there, late industrial capitalism continues to man the helm of an economic system pushing the earth into ever-worsening mass extinction and global climate change.

Adam writes:

“[OOO] reveals that the human has not been traumatically ‘decentered’ by the triple revolutions of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud (feel free to add to this list your favorite ‘traumatic’ decentralists…). This decentering, we can now see, was actually only a traumatic event from a particularly eurocentric, dualist, and transcendentalist perspective. I think its time we stop whining about the poor european psyche’s ‘displacement’ and realize that immanence, ontological parity, and evolutionary cosmology actually center us within the context of things.”

I am all for immanence, ontological parity, and evolutionary cosmology; but I affirm the importance of these principles right alongside those of transcendence, ontological depth, and involutionary metaphysics. There are cross-cultural parallels in the philosophies of India and of various indigenous traditions for these three notions; they are not simply anomalies of a deranged European mentality (e.g., the Indian Vedas and the Mayan Popul Voh). The modern scientific “displacement” of humanity is unavoidable, but if our civilization is to survive the 21st century, I think we must also seek out and discover some sort of cosmotheandric re-orientation. Instead of understanding Cosmos, Theos, and Anthropos as ontologically dissociated and isolable substances as the ancients often did, and instead of annihilating each one-by-one as the moderns have, we must enact a weltanschauung wherein this trinity becomes complexly interpenetrating and dependently co-arising.

Adam goes on to suggest that OOO may be the first substance-based and anti-essentialist philosophy. I’m still not convinced of the linguistic utility or metaphysical validity of returning to a substance ontology. I remain committed to the process-relational paradigm. If we consider the main thrust of the scientific displacement of human beings from the center, most of its momentum seems to come from the discovery of the deep time of evolution and thus the developmental nature of the universe. As Teilhard conveys it, 19th and 20th century cosmology has made it clear that the Anthropos is not the static center of a hierarchically arranged Great Chain of Being, but the “axis and arrow” of a complexly organized creative process of unfolding. In other words, our species, as a result of a longing for the anthropic ideal, is near the leading edge of the cosmogenic rush toward deeper interiority. Everything actual possesses a degree of interiority (and so withdrawnness) precisely because it is a process of becoming (I’ve developed the reasons why here and here).

Knowledge Ecology on an Object-Oriented Ecology, and some reflections on substance

Adam Robbert over at Knowledge-Ecology has posted a great piece on his conception of an object-oriented ecology. He draws primarily from Graham Harman, Tim Morton, and Isabelle Stengers. I’m re-posting my comment to him below:

Really well written, Adam. You’ve definitely provided an outline for a robust OOE. I agree with your assessment that it promises to overcome the various “-centrisms” hampering other approaches to environmental ethics.

My one concern is the idea of substance in OOO. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but in short, I wonder why we need to bring back substance in order to secure the notion of withdrawal when a process ontology already secures it quite well. Objects withdraw even from themselves, which suggests to me that objects are not fixed substances of any kind, but concrescual occasions perishing into objective immortality just as they open into subjective novelty. Objects are not substances, but subject-superjects. An object’s withdrawal is constituted by the subjective pole of its concrescence, which hides from the environment of the object, and from the object’s own habitual prehension of its past.

Instead of talking of “real” v. “sensual” qualities, I prefer to take Schelling’s route, wherein both the dark and the luminous aspects of entities are equally real:

“Every entity,” writes Schelling,

“everything that is, wants to be in itself and out of itself at the same time. It wants to be in itself inasmuch as it posits or collects itself together as what-is [als Seyendes], as a subject; to this extent it opposes development and expansion. It wants to be out of itself inasmuch as it desires to be what it is in itself once more, and hence externally. In the first case, it is something withdrawn by itself, which sets itself in opposition to what is outside of it; but it sets itself in opposition only in order to reveal and declare itself against this outside as what it is in itself. It cannot, therefore, remain in this withdrawn condition” (Ages of the World).

In short, a process ontology polarizes what Harman et al. seem to dualize. The essence of an object is no more withdrawn than it is apparent; it is essentially the budding pulsation which includes both as moments in its concrescence. With Schelling/Whitehead’s position, we get everything useful about OOO without the, to my mind, unnecessary dichotomy between real and sensual. Perhaps I am just oversimplifying Harman’s position, however.

Philosophy Blogging, OOO/SR, Nihilism, and God

It is difficult to describe the effects of the blogosphere on consciousness, especially when the information communicated via blogs pretends to be philosophical. The blog, as a medium, has not yet been swallowed as radio by TV, or the printed word by the digital hyperlink, and so gaining perspective on its effects remains difficult. We’re still in it, like a child in her mother’s womb. I think by the graces of, and so cannot yet understand, this electronic medium. I think the obscurity of the blogosphere’s effects are magnified for academic philosophers, since there are no disciplinary boundaries carving it up in order to assure that interlocutors play the same language games (which is what always happens at university conferences). Academic philosophy, as practiced at conferences and published in journals, is usually myopically specialized. Arguments take place within some narrow field of relevance, while the truly important questions of life on earth remain backgrounded. This is, of course, a caricature. But so long as we are caricaturing, let us hear from Alan Watts:

“This is the current movement in philosophy: logical analysis says you mustn’t think about existence. It’s a meaningless concept. Therefore philosophy has become the discussion of trivia. No good philosopher lays awake nights worrying about the destiny of man and the nature of God and all that sort of thing. A philosopher today is a practical fellow who comes to the university with a briefcase at 9 and leaves at 5. He does philosophy during the day—which is discussing whether certain sentences have meaning and if so what. He would come to work in a white coat if he thought he could get away with it.”

Even where philosophy begins not with pretense, but with the love of wonder and the desire to know the nature of things, it remains subject to the effects on consciousness of the variety of species of media used to communicate it. Modern consciousness, despite its claim to have dropped sophistry for science,  learns to think only given the cognitive augmentation provided by the alphabet.* Postmodern consciousness, similarly, thinks by the graces of the blogosphere, the apogee of the electronic medium. The democratization of information has now become at least technologically feasible, if not politically actual. I don’t think the rise of the blog signals the end of the university (or at least I should hope not), but it does mean that the individual is now shouldering a good deal more of the weight of human knowledge than before.

I am in graduate school myself, though I attend CIIS, an academically marginalized school started by an Indian yogi in the middle of the New Age capital of the world (Watts was once on the faculty). It is impossible for me to escape this context, even though I aim to think individually much in the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment…” -Self-Reliance

Thought does not take place in a vacuum, however. Philosophy is not best done alone in the woods. Institutions, with all due respect to the likes of Emerson and Thoreau, are an indispensable part of the evolution of consciousness. The blogosphere is alluring to me because it is both individualizing and institutionalizing. It is a distributed institution of localized individuals, each capable of participating in the co-production of a planetary ecology of ideas, images, and symbols unhindered by the disciplinary boundaries of traditional universities.

This is the ideal, at least. All of this meta-reflection on philosophy blogging is by way of introduction to some final thoughts in response to what is by now old news, namely the discussion surrounding nihilism and theology that took place earlier this month amongst OOOers. Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Tim Morton, Adam RobbertJason Hills, Tom SparrowLeon Niemoczynski, and others all took part.

More recently, Kris Coffield over at Fractured Politics has posted a summary and some suggestions. I wanted to clarify some assumptions he makes regarding my position.

I have argued that, without some divine function (whether of the theist, pantheist, or panentheist variety), ideas and meanings can have no reality in the universe. I make this claim in order to remain metaphysically consistent, not because I think atheism is immoral. Obviously, atheists can still be ethical people, operating in the world with meaning, purpose, and even humanitarian idealism. I would never dispute this. What I have argued is that atheists who are also scientific materialists/naturalists risk falling into blatant contradiction unless they are able to articulate how thinking, feeling, and willing (faculties normally associated with consciousness) remain possible despite their metaphysical commitment to a thoroughly non-teleological, disenchanted cosmology. If it is the case that the universe operates according to efficient causality alone (as most materialists traditionally assert), then how is it that human beings are capable of entertaining ideas and engaging in meaningful projects? The validity of scientific knowledge rests upon the assumption that the thoughts and purposes of scientists are real. The atheistic materialist is left with two options in order to remain consistent with this assumption: either ideas and meanings are uniquely human capacities not present in the rest of the universe, or human consciousness itself is an epiphenomenal illusion that neuroscience will eventually explain in mechanistic terms. I think both of these options are inadequate: emergentist dualism is too anthropocentric, and eliminativist monism is too mechanomorpic. I maintain that the human soul is not ontologically distinct from the rest of the universe because the universe is ensouled. Whitehead’s panentheist conception of God functions in a way similar to the World-Soul as described in Timaeus; only, instead of actively shaping passive matter as Plato’s demiurge, Whitehead’s dipolar God bends the infinitely diversifying flow of Creativity into the finite occasions of a unifying Cosmos (and is bent, in turn, by these same occasions).

Coffield argues that, despite my apparent support of the anthrodecentric tendencies of OOO, I am “ultimately unable to escape” a human-centric ontology. He continues:

“Even if the noosphere is more putatively sophisticated than the nonhuman objectsphere (a debatable point), it does not follow, from an object-orientation, that the relations of the former should be given precedence over the latter. Instead, as Levi Bryant has previously indicated, existence entails perpetual differentiation, such that to be is to differ. Thus, the very concept of a singular noosphere or inanimate objectsphere is conceptually shaky, and any entity inserted to bridge the sides of this infinitely regressive binary—God, game, golden goose, or Gandalf—is rendered, to borrow Morton’s word, irrelevant.”

Much of the philosophizing I do on this blog reflects my struggle to steer clear of all binaries by weaving Wisdom’s wandering story into a differentiated whole. There are many objects, many perspectives, both human-related and not. In calling them all objects, I aim to think the Absolute, or the identity of identity and difference. My philosophizing is a cosmologizing, and in that sense, all my thinking is in the service of anthropogenesis. I aim to cosmologize the human by anthropomorphizing the Cosmos. Perhaps this sounds tautological, but if we think in terms of process or genesis instead of being or ontos, the Anthropic Principle becomes among the most profound of metaphysical insights. Anthropos is already implicit in Cosmos, not because our particular species represents the supreme achievement of the universe, but because thinking has always been a more than human activity rooted in the nature of reality itself.

“The forces which are at work inside my body”, suggests Rudolf Steiner,

“…are the same as those which exist outside. Therefore I am really identical with the objects; not, however, “I” in so far as I am a perception of myself as subject, but “I” in so far as I am a part of the universal world process […] The universal, primordial Being permeating all humanity thus takes hold of us through our thinking. Life within reality, filled with thought content, is at the same time life in God.” -Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path, p. 98 and 236

I do not think that the noösphere should take precedence over the non-human universe, because I do not conceive of the universe as lacking in νοῦς or ψυχή. The noösphere is a cosmic event, something the whole of Gaia is doing in conjunction with the solar system and galaxy within which it is nested. God, or the World-Soul (ψυχή κόσμου), is not irrelevant to philosophy if the philosopher hopes to think the Cosmos. If, as Bryant suggests, “to be is to differ,” then it is nihilism, indeed, that we are left with. Not that I want to homogenize the individualities of reality; I would just rephrase Bryant’s important insight: “to become is to differ.” Process philosophy is then an attempt to identify and re-enact the divine aim of creative differentiation, to participate in its latent holotropic tendencies by uncovering the divine presence in all temporal things. Only then does the Universe become a reality.

Coffield continues:

“If nihilism fears really are concerns over the implications of anthrodecentrism (a clever term coined by Segall) for value judgement, then demonstrating the capacity for deriving value under realist conditions may allay anxiety about affirmations of meaninglessness, making the more radical articulations of object-oriented ontology mare palatable. Crafting a coherent variant of anthrodecentric normativity can be accomplished, in one sense, through an appeal to naturalistic realism…[or] a radically flattened version of natural selection [productive of] moral norms consonant with an instrumental social rationality, wherein moral arrangements that impede group interests animate the potential for unrest, creating feedback that promotes the development of norms aligned with social rationality.”

In order to avoid being misunderstood as advocating subject-centrism over object-centrism, or unity over variety, or hierarchy over ecology, I should further unpack my cosmotheandrism. Attempts to naturalize our moral needs/wants in this way seems to me to be a form of greedy reductionism neglectful of the extent to which the ultimate values of the Universe pre-exist the species level, since it is these values (like Beauty, Goodness, and Truth) that provide the metaphysical condition for the possibility of local accomplishments of normativity. Reducing morality to an accident of social and/or natural selection does not lead to moral realism, but to relativism. If we seek an object-orientation in ethics, then value must be rooted in the world process itself. Our human characteristics are microcosmic inflections of the divine character of the macrocosm.

This microcosm-macrocosm relation is not deterministic or coercive, such that God becomes responsible for every decision made by human beings or any other organism. The World-Soul is not a universal tyrant, but a poet, who, “with tender patience [leads] it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).

Whitehead goes on:

“God and the World are the contrasted opposites in terms of which Creativity achieves its supreme task of transforming disjoined multiplicity, with its diversities in opposition, into concrescent unity, with its diversities in contrast […] God and the World stand over against each other, expressing the final metaphysical truth that appetitive vision and physical enjoyment have equal claim to priority in creation. But no two actualities can be torn apart: each is all in all. Thus each temporal occasion embodies God, and is embodied in God. In God’s nature, permanence is primordial and flux is derivative from the World: in the World’s nature, flux is primordial and permanence is derivative from God. Also the World’s nature is a primordial datum for God; and God’s nature is a primordial datum for the World. Creation achieves the reconciliation of permanence and flux when it has reached its final term which is everlastingness—the Apotheosis of the World. Opposed elements stand to each other in mutual requirement. In their unity, they inhibit or contrast. God and the World stand to each other in this op-posed requirement. God is the infinite ground of all mentality, the unity of vision seeking physical multiplicity. The World is the multiplicity of finites, actualities seeking a perfected unity. Neither God, nor the World, reaches static completion. Both are in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty” (ibid., p. 348-349).

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*The alphabet begins with A. A is for aleph, א, which to a mystic’s ear symbolizes to the polar unity (or Trinitarity) of God:

“The letter can been seen as being composed of [1] an upper yud, [2] a lower yud, and [3] a vav leaning on a diagonal. [1]The upper yud represents the hidden and ineffible aspects of God while [2]the lower yud represents God’s revelation and presence in the world. [3]The vav (“hook”) connects the two realms.” -Wikipedia

SR/OOO and Nihilism: a response to Harman and Bryant

I’ve already posted a short response to Harman, but I wanted to re-visit the issues explored in that post concerning the difference between Homo Sapiens, as an object among objects, and the Anthropos, as an ideal toward which every object tends. I will also try to disentangle my own “cosmotheandric” position from the generic anti-nihilism Levi Bryant has rightfully critiqued.

I should preface this by saying that Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology excites me a great deal. I think it puts philosophical heat on many of the right places in contemporary phenomenology and naturalism, where the residue of dualism and anthropocentrism is still too thick for my post-secular taste. When I suggested in an earlier post that SR/OOO needs to unpack its theological and anthropological implications, I did so with the hopeful expectation that, were an object-oriented theology, psychology, or anthropology developed, it might provide a viable alternative to the philosophical exaggerations of Creationism and Nihilism alike.

When I refer to nihilism in the context of SR/OOO, I am thinking in particular of Ray Brassier‘s eliminative materialism. As far as Brassier is concerned, the “manifest image” of the human as an ensouled organism participating in an intrinsically meaningful world should be replaced by the “scientific image” of the human as a biological machine competing for survival in an uncaring material universe. Brassier’s nihilism has several main characteristics: 1) it denies the cognitive role of myth, imagination, and intuition in human consciousness, since 2) it asserts that truth is available to scientific rationality alone, and 3) it asserts the contingency of thought for matter, and matter’s priority to thought.

I’ve written on the relation between Mythos and Logos, or story and science, before. I agree with Donna Haraway, when she writes in Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Science. (1997), that “There is no way to rationality—to actually existing worlds—outside stories, not for our species, anyway” (p. 44). Myth provides the cognitive and imaginal condition necessary for the emergence of logic and empiricism. You cannot think about ideas until after you’ve contemplated the gods; this is true in terms of both the collective history of our species and the development of an individual. Haraway makes the case that, without the Christian mythos as its cultural background, the Scientific Revolution never would have happened. The cultural philosopher Jean Gebser makes a similar case in his magnum opus The Ever-Present Origin. Gebser offers an archeology of human consciousness, depicting the emergence of de-mythologized rationality (beginning with Plato, and ending, perhaps, with Hegel) as a necessary, but not sufficient phase in the evolution of consciousness. Somehow, consciousness must find a way to integrate each phase of its own evolution (Gebser distinguishes 4: archaic, magic, mythic, and mental), or face annihilation.

Bryant says he is unable to understand why one might assume SR/OOO has anything to do with nihilism, since an flat ontology doesn’t mean humans can’t still relate ethically and meaningfully with one another.

Despite the fact that humans are on equal ontological footing with other beings, this in no way leads to the disappearance of values and goals for human beings. We still value things. We still set goals for ourselves. We still evaluate things about ourselves, the world around us, society, and other people in terms of these goals, and so on. Why would all of this suddenly disappear?

I don’t think nihilism necessarily follows from a flat ontology, but it all depends on how we do the flattening. Alan Watts wasn’t exactly a systematic philosopher (he usually preferred to refer to himself as a spiritual entertainer), but he did articulate his own flavor of a flat ontology, wherein every object is essentially God in disguise:

God is not the maker and architect of the universe but the actor of it, and is playing all the parts at once, and this connects up with the idea of each one of us as persons, because a person is a mask, from the Latin persona, the mask worn by the actors in Greco-Roman drama… And, so, imagine a situation in which you have the best of all possible actors, namely God, and the best of all possible audiences ready to be taken in and convinced that it’s real, namely God, and that you are all many, many masks which the basic consciousness, the basic mind of the universe, is assuming. To use a verse from G. K. Chesterton:

But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.

 It is like the mask of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, a multiple mask which illustrates the fact that the one who looks out of my eyes and out of everyone’s eyes is the same center.
I think Watts’ sense that everything is God pretending not to be God is similar to what I want to say about the Anthropos, which is not to be simply identified with Homo sapiens, but is rather a cosmic principle at work to shape the becoming of every actual entity. I take the speculative risk of suggesting that the evolution of the Cosmos is influenced by divine lures, the Anthropos being among the most pre-eminent of all such lures, or archetypes, with a taste for actualization. I’ve been influenced  here both by Carl Jung’s modern interpretation of Alchemy and Hermeticism, and Whitehead’s process theology.

“God’s role,” writes Whitehead,

“is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).

I think Whitehead was struggling to secularize theology, such that science and religion–the study of nature and the worship of divinity–could mutually enhance one another, rather than being placed in irremediable conflict on either side of a universe bifurcated between Nature and Spirit. Bryant questions whether any good evidence exists for believing in God, but it seems that he is imagining a God who issues decrees and determines the future course of the universe in advance. Whitehead’s God has no such power, but rather is alike in kind to all other actual entities. God is with the world, not above it. God does not guarantee anything but the possibility of relevant and meaningful experience to every actual occasion. It is up to each actual occasion to decide upon its future based on its own subjective ends. There is little scientific evidence for the existence of a transcendent, law imposing God like the one Bryant is critiquing (I say “little” evidence only because of the way some physicists remain rutted in a non-historical paradigm that conceives of physical laws as arbitrarily imposed upon nature from beyond nature); but from Whitehead’s panentheistic perspective, the evidence for God is aesthetic and moral, not just scientific. That there is a Cosmos at all, rather than chaos, is evidence of Beauty’s participation in bringing the cosmic democracy of objects into (a still evolutionary and open-ended!) harmonization. That human beings are capable of struggling for Justice (even if it remains largely an ideal imperfectly realized) is evidence that God’s infinite love for each and every entity is ingredient in our more limited experience of entities. And finally, that human beings are capable of doing metaphysics and philosophy so as to reveal the inner workings of reality is evidence that a deeper Intelligence is involved in bringing forth both the knower and the known.

Last month, Bryant articulated what he calls a “wilderness ontology.” I’m very sympathetic to the idea that humans not be given special status, and would like to extend it into new terrain. I can’t fully unpack its implications at the moment, but what of the possibility of a “wilderness theology,” wherein God is considered as a metaphysical scheme’s chief exemplar, rather than its ultimate explanation or unique exception? Whitehead’s God, immanent and responsive to the creative decisions of each and every other actual entity, is a good starting place for the development of such a wilderness theology. Theology doesn’t necessarily require inserting some vertical scale of values into the universe, such that humans rank higher than animals and animals rank higher than plants in some Great Chain of Being. From the perspective of a panentheism (or cosmotheandrism) like Whitehead’s, values are neither horizontally constructed by human society nor vertically imposed by divine will; his theology is an attempt to upset this neat dichotomy between nihilism and deism so that the Being of God’s mind manifests itself here and now in the twists and turns of the forest path of Becoming.

OOO and Anthropos: Graham Harman responds

Adam Robbert and Graham Harman have both posted responses to my post about the anthrodecentrism of object-oriented ontology.

I think Adam’s summary of my position as regards the relationship between divinity, nature, and humanity is quite accurate. He chose Raimon Panikkar‘s term “cosmotheandrism” to describe my approach. I’m definitely sympathetic to this characterization and have worked Panikkar’s ideas into several essays on panentheism.

Harman responded in particular to my assertion that OOO needs to articulate its anthropological and theological foundations to avoid spiraling into nihilism.

He writes:

Since footnotes2plato doesn’t seem inherently opposed to the OOO project, I assume that when he says that “OOO needs to unpack its own theological and anthropological implications,” he doesn’t mean that the way to do this is by restoring human being to its previous grandiose eminence. I don’t think footnotes2plato means that nihilism automatically results from putting all beings on the same footing, and if he did mean that I would argue against it.

I don’t think, after Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, that philosophy should or can re-instate humanity as God’s uniquely chosen species, singled out from all other life. I also don’t think nihilism necessarily follows from a flat ontology. It all depends on how we construe the relationship between Cosmos and Anthropos. The species Homo sapiens is not identical to the Anthropos; rather, the latter represents the ideal toward which our species, like all other life, is striving. I follow much ancient Hermetic thought in construing the Anthropos as an archetype active throughout the Cosmos, a potential form of manifestation that, at least on our planet, has been most closely approximated by Homo sapiens. I, like Teilhard de Chardin, think there is a direction to evolution, a curve toward greater complexity and consciousness expressed through deeper interiority. Given enough time, and as a result of the influence of divine lures, the Universe tends to evolve the capacity for a deeper feeling of Beauty, a clearer sight of Truth, and a stronger will for Goodness. I think overcoming nihilism requires articulating a coherent “cosmotheandric” scheme, wherein the role of the human is to more fully realize its potential as a representative of the Anthropos on planet Earth.

I need to unpack some of these thoughts further, but I’m running out the door now. More soon!

Thinking etho-ecology with Stengers and Whitehead

I’ve been reading Stengers’ recently translated book Thinking with Whitehead (2011) with an eye to developing an eco-ontology, or ecological realism. Adam and I are still in the process of searching for an adequate characterization for this project, but in nuce, we want to untangle the ethical, epistemological, cosmological, and ontological knot that is the ecological crisis. The hope is that a coherent and adequate philosophical grasp of the complex relations between each of these threads will enable us to bring forth more resilient modes of living and dying as human beings on planet earth. We are just the latest participants in a tradition of cosmopolitical thought, and with the help of philosophers like Stengers and Whitehead, perhaps we can play some small role in transforming the danger of ecological crisis into an opportunity opening up an entirely novel civilizational adventure.

Whitehead’s metaphysical system, if understood in the creative spirit with which it was conceived, is itself always in process, always open to ongoing tests of logical coherence and experiential adequacy. It is an open system oriented toward a similarly processual cosmos without pre-established foundations, material, spiritual, or otherwise. The order and harmony of the universe is achieved, not given. What holds together now may cease to hold together in the future. Global climate change is just the latest creation/discovery by modern scientific practice of the contingency of nature. Such a catastrophe forces us to think of “the environment” in a more participatory way, where organisms are not passively fitted to a stubborn, pre-given Nature, but actively cooperate to symbiotically shape their own environments. Climate change challenges us to conceive of living beings as existing in precarious relationships of trust with their environments: their success depends upon the patience of their environment, of the environment’s ability to maintain a hold on the conditions constituting viability in any given instance.

I quote Stengers at length:

That endurance is a factual success without any higher guarantee may be expressed as follows: may those who are no longer afraid that the sky might fall on their heads be all the more attentive to the eventual impatience of what they depend on. Thus, it is not without interest today that the new figure of Gaia indicates that it is becoming urgent to create a contrast between the earth valorized as a set of resources and the earth taken into account as a set of interdependent processes, capable of assemblages that are very different from the ones on which we depend. In order to distinguish the endurance of Gaia–and of the multitude of bacterial populations that play an active role in its assemblages–from the precariousness of our modes of existence and of those of other large mammals, some speak of Gaia’s “shrug of the shoulders” capable of making us lose our foothold: “Gaia is ticklish, we depend on her patience, let us beware her impatience.” The contemporary period is exploring the difficulty of a transformation of what are called “values” in a sense that corresponds well to the Whiteheadian use of the term: a particular way of shaping our attainments, presupposing the stability wagered upon in this way, while explaining itself in terms of habits (p. 163).

Stengers invokes the Gaia theory, which construes the earth as a self-organizing assemblage of living processes–a superorganism–in order to illustrate the need for an etho-ecology, or an understanding of earth that links the ethos of living beings with their oikos. A living being succeeds in enduring only in relation to other beings, all of whom make their homes within a vast environment upon whose patience they depend.

Thinking ecology with Whitehead has implications beyond just biology and environmental ethics. His ontology is organic, not in the sense that it privileges wholes over parts, but in that it encourages chemists to think reactions in terms of the “ethology of molecules,” and physicists to think protons and electrons as species of elemental organism. Organisms, for Whitehead, are not self-subsistent entities that might serve as explanations for everything else. “Organism” is a concept Whitehead employs to think the active, enduring production of order at any and all levels amidst ever-changing conditions. It risks vitalist associations to avoid any bifurcations between subjectivist free causes and objectivist mechanical causes. Everything from carbon atoms, to elephants, to hospitals survive as organisms amidst their environments due to the ongoing effectiveness of canalized habits in securing the modes of organization peculiar to their purposes. Maintaining their wholeness as organisms requires that their parts continue to play the roles required of the whole. If patients refuse to give up most of their rights upon entering the hospital, the hospital would quickly degenerate. When the patient accepts the role assigned to them by the organism of which they are to become a part, doctors and their assistants can then perform their various expertises upon her, usually without her having the slightest knowledge of the details of the procedure (see p. 175). Organisms are genuine wholes, but only as long as they last, as long as their parts are able or willing to be infected by the purposes of the whole.

A philosophy based in an ecological realism must, I think, rececitate some conception of organism to successfully navigate the new imaginal territories that it enacts. I’m more inclined to speak of “organisms” than I am “objects” when trying to ontologize because the former foregrounds both the active role of these entities in constructing the real, as well as their fragility: the fact that they may perish should their environment suddenly change. I think “organism” also highlights the extent to which relationality and individuality are co-constitive (OOO seems to overemphasize the individual while demoting relationality to a secondary phenomenon).

In subsequent posts, I’d like to flesh out what Francisco Varela‘s and Evan Thompson‘s autopoietic/enactive approach to the life sciences [see The Embodied Mind (1992) and Mind in Life (2007)] can contribute to both an etho-ecology and a more robust account of the epistemic issues surrounding the study of the same life processes constituting our capacity for study. Varela and Thompson’s philosophical attitude runs parallel to Whitehead’s, but neither explicitly mentions being influenced by his philosophy of organism. I’m especially interested in drawing out the connections between these thinkers in light of Ray Brassier’s critique of Thompson to be delivered later this month at a conference in Crotia on vitalism. The enactive perspective is radically participatory, in that it recusisvely weds ethics, epistemology, and ontology. The way we think the world immediately begins to translate into the way we make the world. I feel responding to Brassier’s nihilistic philosophy of extinction is thus more than a merely academic exercise. It is my way of responding to an invasive species of thought threatening to disturb the environmental norms that constitute my life.

Process Ontology in Schelling and Whitehead

In preparation for a larger speculative project, I’ve been reading a translation by Judith Norman of the 2nd draft of Schelling’s unfinished manuscript entitled Ages of the World (1813). I’ve been intrigued by Schelling’s philosophies of nature and freedom for several years, but never had the time to do a closer study. Iain Hamilton Grant‘s well-researched text Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2008), on which I presented a few months back in a panel discussion on speculative realism, reminded me just how compelling his ideas and methods are. My own philosophical approach remains thoroughly Whiteheadian, though I continue to aspire to deepen Whitehead’s more naturalistic tendencies by bringing him into conversation with the hermetic occultism of Rudolf Steiner. I think Schelling may offer a bridge between the two, since his system has both a processual materialist aspect and an evolutionary spiritualist aspect. Schelling’s direct influence on Whitehead is minimal, if there is any at all; Steiner, on the other hand, clearly felt an affinity with him.

I am drawn to the thoughts of these three men because they offer a picture of the universe, and humanity’s place within it, that preserves the best of ancient philosophy alongside that of modern science. In our now postmodern context, there is no doubt a need to update and amend some of their ideas. Meeting the challenges of the ecological and social crises of our time demands an unprecedented transformation of human consciousness, and with it our philosophy and science. Anthropocentrism, whether that of the religious or technoscientific sort, is perhaps the most difficult conceptual obstacle standing in the way of an adequate form of thinking the cosmos. The universe is far stranger and more alien than we could ever have imagined. Matter, for centuries science’s most dependable and fundamental explanatory category, has become as “dark” and mysterious as spirit.

This darkness, and the need to break free of anthropocentrism, is, in part, the motivation underlying the emergence of object-oriented philosophies like that of Graham Harman, Tim Morton, and Levi Bryant. I am not as familiar with the latter two’s approaches, though I believe Bryant is more amenable to a process ontology like Schelling’s or Whitehead’s than is Harman. For Harman, objects are substantial and not processual. “Time,” he writes in Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005), “is the strife between an object and its accidents” (p. 250); time is not “an absolute constant force that wheels onward regardless of the deployment of specific objects” (p. 249). Whitehead would agree that time is not independent of objects, but rather, as Harman suggests, unfurls within objects. In this sense, every object has its own time. As I’ve outlined, albeit briefly, in another post, Whitehead does not entirely reduce the substance of an object to its relations as he is often accused of doing by Bryant and Harman alike. Time, nonetheless, does seem to play a more fundamental role in the production of objects in Whitehead and Schelling.

In Ages of the World, Schelling unpacks his understanding of material products in the context of a philosophy of time:

Even the smallest grain of sand must contain determinations within itself that we cannot exhaust until we have laid out the entire course of creative nature leading up to it. Everything is only the work of time, and it is only through time that everything receives its particular character and meaning.

Nature, for Schelling, exists in contradiction, and so becomes in time. It is both creative process and created product, influenced both by the powers of forward striving and backward inhibition (novelty and habit). Without the retarding force of habit, time would not exist, “because development would occur in an uninterrupted flash rather than successively…” Nor could time exist without the driving force of novelty, since without it “there would be absolute rest, death, standstill…”

“Every entity,” writes Schelling,

everything that is, wants to be in itself and out of itself at the same time. It wants to be in itself inasmuch as it posits or collects itself together as what-is [als Seyendes], as a subject; to this extent it opposes development and expansion. It wants to be out of itself inasmuch as it desires to be what it is in itself once more, and hence externally. In the first case, it is something withdrawn by itself, which sets itself in opposition to what is outside of it; but it sets itself in opposition only in order to reveal and declare itself against this outside as what it is in itself. It cannot, therefore, remain in this withdrawn condition.

“Thus,” he concludes, “the principles we perceive in time [and nature] are the authentic inner principles of all life, and contradiction is not only possible but in fact necessary.” I don’t think Schelling’s approach here is opposed to that of Harman. Their respective positions may be complementary, if different in emphasis. I am not sure of the German word used above for “withdrawn,” but I found these lines especially significant in this context. Withdrawal is perhaps at the very center of Harman’s conceptual scheme, and indeed it plays an important role for Schelling, as well. But in Schelling’s ontology, withdrawal is only one moment in a polarized process. Beings love to hide, but also to show themselves. This contradiction is what puts existence into motion.

In the context of a process ontology, withdrawal can remain a central concept without becoming ultimate. Objects need not be dissolved into relations, but can be understood to hide from one another precisely because they exist in contradiction and so are always becoming in time. An object, then, withdrawals from itself and from other objects because it is never simply at rest as itself. Heraclitus wrote that “you cannot step twice into the same stream,” but in Schelling’s sense, perhaps we could say that it is impossible to step even once into the same stream.

Object as subject-superject, or why Harman is wrong about Whitehead

Graham Harman and Alfred North Whitehead have a lot in common, but they differ in what they say about substance as a metaphysical category. I think Harman overstates this difference. Whitehead suggests “the whole universe consists of elements disclosed in the experiences of subjects” (Process and Reality, p. 166). This multiple disclosure of the One is an ongoing creative process, where the momentary subject (or “superject”) who apprehends the universe’s local appearance becomes a monad, a word Whitehead remarks “expresses [the subject’s] essential unity at the decisive moment, which stands between its birth and its perishing” (PR, p. 88). In this moment of concrescence, “the many become one, and are increased by one.”

Whitehead, then, does recognize the way in which an actual entity withdrawals from its relations and qualities: it does so precisely as a subject. An object’s (or “subject-superject’s,” in Whitehead’s terms) private subsistence apart from the sensual world is fleeting, almost immediately perishing back into the world, but because in this brief moment it enjoys and decides upon the ideal possibilities of its own future, it adds something new to the cosmic process. An object is withdrawn, for Whitehead, because this enjoyment and decision can never be directly caused by any of its relations.