Tim Morton lecturing on object-oriented poetry.

Romanticism 20: Keats and Shelley and OOO.

I’m reminded of an earlier reflection on Whitehead’s and Schelling’s process ontology of organism and the principle of non-contradiction.

Keat’s Ode on a Grecian Urn.

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.

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.

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.

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.