“Nature is a priori” -Schelling

Thanks to milliern for his commentary on and reflections about an exchange Professor Corey Anton, myself, and others have been having on YouTube. I’m reposting my comment to him below:

I wanted to offer a few clarifications of my own position. I don’t normally think of myself as a “Heideggerian,” though I suppose most people who take the time to really read Heidegger are irrevocably transformed in some way. I’m one of those who has spent considerable time with his texts and ideas. While he has changed the way I think, I’ve nonetheless come to differ with him (as I understand him) in important ways. I’m not at all convinced that ‘human’ being, or Dasein, is the only significant mode of being. Nature, too, is significant. In fact, like Schelling, I would say the significance of human being could only be derived from that of Nature’s original being. Nature is a priori, not mind. Nature generated mind; mind is but a higher potency of Nature’s subjectivity. So I’m more Schellingian than Hedeggerian. If Heidegger spoke of a “groundless ground,” it’s because he was a close reader of Schelling, who more than a century earlier had recorded his encounter with das unvordenkliche (“the unprethinkable”). I don’t think this “groundless ground” should be identified with the Kantian transcendental ego or ding an sich. The groundless ground, the abyss or abgrund (a term Schelling borrowed from the esotericist Böhme), is the mother of both phenomena and noumena. Das Unvordenkliche is not born of the phenomenal-instrumental nature known to physicists and biologist. Nor is it born of the Ego, as in the Fichtean interpretation of Kant. Rather, like Spinoza before him, and Whitehead after him, Schelling distinguished between Natura naturans and Natura naturata. The former is Nature ‘naturing,’ the latter Nature ‘natured.’ The former is process, the latter is product. The former is alive, the latter is dead. Schelling’s Nature is not the external/extended material world of law-abiding physical particles that is supposed to exist by mathematical physicists. His Nature is not a ground, but a creative abyss. To know such a world, you must not march off to explain and control it as though it were entirely made up of plainly visible bodies,–as modern techno-scientific materialism has–, you must humbly seek to understand and communicate with its mostly invisible sensitivities (i.e., with its soul).

Unlike Kant’s mechanized Newtonian universe, Schelling perceived the earth and her creatures, the sun, planets, and other stars–yes as mathematically ordered–, but also as animate gods, as living beings creative of beautiful worlds. Where scientific materialism sees only dead nature (that is, nature natured), organic realism (what I refer to Schelling and Whitehead’s  philosophies of nature as) perceives nature naturing. What is unprethinkable about ourselves and about the world is this ongoing creative process–call it “cosmogenesis,” call it “Creativity,” call it “the One and All,” or God, if you want. Whatever “It” is, it’s before subject and object. It is before mind and matter. Schelling is usually lumped in with the idealists, but it was Heidegger himself (in his lectures on Schelling’s 1809 book on human freedom) who first suggested that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie in fact subverted the entire German Idealist project from the inside out. I’d argue he has more in common with the radical empiricist James than with any idealist, and especially with James’ philosophical inheritor at Harvard, the mathematical adept turned cosmologist Alfred North Whitehead.

Speaking of which, I noticed you are interested in Einstein, ether, space-time, etc…. I wonder if you’ve run across Whitehead’s alternative ether theory (the “ether of events” or “extensive continuum”)? I’ve written about it HERE. I’d be curious to know your take on his organic cosmological scheme.

The Varieties of Materialism: Matter as the Play of Form

Following up on my contribution to the Latour/AIME reading group, I wanted to say a bit more about the confused concept called “matter.” There are many varieties of materialism, but for the sake of time, let’s follow Robert Jackson by dividing them up into two basic categories: 1) that variety of materialism which understands matter as some ultimate stuff that all emergent forms can be reduced to, 2) that which understands matter as some primordial formlessness, or endlessly differentiating movement from out of which all form emerges.


While I’m committed to articulating a realist ontology (my dissertation draws on Schelling and Whitehead in pursuit of what you might call an ontology of organism), I’d argue that to be real is not necessarily to be material, especially if matter is conceived of as a fundamental stuff. If we insist on continuing to employ the words “mind” and “matter” in metaphysical discussions, I’d want to construe them not as separate substances in a dualist ontology, but rather as reciprocal poles in an ontology of becoming, where “matter” signifies the accumulated weight of the stubborn facts of the past, while “mind” signifies the novel forms yearning for realization in the future. Every passing moment, or drop of experience, exists in tension between the two poles, fact and form, or actuality and potentiality. Matter, then, is only half the picture. A universe of only material things would be a universe where everything had already been actualized such that nothing new could ever emerge. All that could occur would be the rearrangement of the same old matter. There are plenty of thinkers who would disagree with me. For example, see Levi Bryant’s recent post.

Bryant seems to want to defend a non-reductive version of the first type of materialism. Contrary to my claim that materialistic atomism makes real emergent novelty impossible, Bryant writes:

…it’s difficult to see how this criticism hits the mark with the atomistic materialism of thinkers such as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius.  Lucretius, for example, is quite clear that relations between atoms are every bit as important as the atoms themselves.  In example after example he discusses emergent entities that manifest powers (capacities) and properties only when atoms are arranged [or organized] in these particular ways…certain objects are only possible through certain relations.

I’ve probably got much to learn from Bryant about the Greek atomists. So my response here as much a query as a claim. I am aware that the third necessary ingredient in Lucretius’ scheme (aside from atoms and the void) is the clinamen. Atoms have an unexplained tendency to swerve as they fall through the void. According to Lucretius, without the clinamen, “nature would have never produced anything” (ii. 216-224), since no interaction would ever have occurred between atoms to allow for material organization. Leaving aside the equally puzzling question as to where atomic weight comes from or why atoms should be falling, we might also ask what the cause of this swerve, and so of material organization, is. Why do otherwise inert atoms have such a strange inclination for “curved” motion? Why does matter tend to turn in on itself? Lucretius seemed content to say it was simply “chance.” Chance, I suppose, means “for no reason at all.” Perhaps a strange swerving deserves an equally strange story. But we could tell other stories that make more sense. Dante might identify the cause of the clinamen with the Primum Mobile, the final sphere of the heavens whose divinely inspired motion initiates and sustains the motion of all the spheres it encloses (Paradiso, Canto XXVII). Of course, modern cosmology has outgrown Dante’s ancient geocentric imagination. We need a new creation myth to account for the strange inclinations of matter, a story more credible than the rather mechanical cosmos of revolving crystalline spheres first described by Aristotle and Ptolemy. I imagine Bryant would disagree with the need for a story in ontology, but then again, Lucretius articulated his ontology in the form of an epic poem. When it comes down to it, every metaphysician needs to give narrative force to their ontology by way of some ultimate reason(s) for which no reason can be given (other than givenness itself). For Whitehead, the ultimate reasons are aesthetic (Eros, Beauty), while the main characters in his cosmic plot are Creativity and Actuality. For Plato, the ultimate reasons are moral (Goodness, Truth), while his main characters are Nous and Chora.

Bryant says Lucretius finds relations to be as important as atoms. Does this mean relations are just as real as atoms? If so, perhaps the cause of the clinamen, and by proxy of nature’s emergent hierarchy of complexity, has something to do with an inclination to relate. “Chance” seems to me to be a poor explanation for such an inclination. Throwing our hands up by claiming such an all-pervasive swerve is random seems to me to be a rather anti-metaphysical, even anti-scientific, move. The tendency to relate must have a cause. There must be some account we can give of it that aligns with our understanding and coheres with our experience. Such an inclination, or tendency, may be motivated by what Whitehead, after Plato, called Eros. For Dante, Eros is “the love which moves the sun and other stars” (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, lines 142-145). Love requires freedom, so this story concerning the cause of the clinamen need not neglect the uncertainty of atomic motion. All that I’d want to add to Lucretius’ account of atomic motion is relational emotion. This brings his ontology rather close to Whitehead’s processual atomism. How close depends on whether we are willing to say relations are just as real, and just as primordial, as atoms. Whitehead’s process-relational scheme includes both internal relations and external relations. On Bryant’s reading, Lucretius would seem to leave no room for internal relations: atoms can only collide; they cannot collude (they can only relate externally via efficient causation; they cannot relate internally via erotic play).

I’m hoping Bryant will clear up my queries concerning Lucretius. I’m ready to stand corrected about his lack of a coherent explanation for the clinamen. I would want to argue, however, that Bryant has misunderstood the second type of materialism listed by Jackson. Bryant writes:

Far from materialism being “always deployed against form” [as Jackson claims], materialism is instead the thesis that matter is always structured matter.  If materialism is deployed against anything, it would be against the schema offered by Plato in the Timeaus where it is suggested that, on the one hand, there is a formless material chora, and on the other hand a domain of idealincorporeal forms, and that a demiurge is required to mold this formless matter into formed matter.  What materialism contests is the incorporeality of form and the formlessness of materiality, instead arguing that all matter is structured matter.

Jackson describes the second type of materialism as that which posits an infinitely differentiating pulsation of formless energy at the base of all things. Whitehead’s ultimate principle of Creativity could easily be described this way. He suggests in Adventures of Ideas that Creativity is an adaptation of Plato’s “dark and difficult” concept of the Chora, or Receptacle. Plato describes the Receptacle as formless, but this is hardly the end of the story. The Receptacle is not simply the passive material from which a cosmos will be shaped, but the place within which the cosmos will come to be. Further, it is hardly “passive” at all, since it is abuzz with errant forces winnowing this way and that, grouping trace elements (pre-formed matter?) by their kind like a cosmogenic sieve, only to ceaselessly disturb every attempt at settled placement. When approaching Plato’s Receptacle, Bryant seems to fixate on one descriptor, “formless,” while ignoring the numerous indications in Timaeus that there is more to this choric “matter” than meets the eye. There’s no doubt Plato’s story could use some tweaking given our modern understanding. But let’s not forget he never claimed to be telling anything but a “likely story.” That is all we can hope to do today, even with our improved mathematics and increased data set.




Last night, I watched a short performance called “The Kepler Story” at the Morrison Planetarium in the California Academy of Sciences. The opening scene introduces Kepler’s essay on the crystalline forms of snowflakes. Kepler played with an ingenious pun between the Latin word “nix,” meaning snowflake, and the German word of the same spelling, meaning “nothing.” Is form really “nothing” at all? Kepler didn’t think so. He wondered why all snowflakes have six-sides, despite the fact that each one achieved its six-sidedness in a unique way. He searched for the “formative principle” of snow crystals. He considered the way water vapor evaporates due to heat. He considered the influence of impurities in the clouds where crystals grow.

“There must be a cause why snow has the shape of a six-cornered starlet,” Kepler wrote in his essay, De nive sexangula: “It cannot be chance. Why always six?” His answer: Hexagonal packing provides the tightest possible arrangement of water droplets. Matter has some intrinsic tendency to organize itself, taking great care to achieve geometrical harmony. Kepler’s conjecture only came to be proven basically correct several years ago. As far as Kepler was concerned, the “formative principle” at play giving shape to the water vapor had no purpose whatsoever. From his perspective, nature is “in the habit of playing with the passing moment.” Its reasons for taking shape are purely aesthetic.

Ecologies of Space-Time in Organic Ontologies

Adam over at Knowledge-Ecology threw a great post up concerning ethology, ecology, and time. Here is a sneak peek:

“The organism is not an entity acting from within space and time; rather, the organism is an active generator of space-time, enfolding both into a complex ecology that flows from organisms and their behavior. The ecosystem, when viewed from this ontological perspective, is a dynamic and evolving zone of space-time generated in part by the activity of organisms. Ecosystems are not in space or time, they differentially construct multiple entangled layers of both.”

The gestalt shift Adam calls for is exactly what I tried to get Whitehead to say in this section of a longer essay on his contributions to scientific cosmology.

Phenomenology and Process Ontology: Evan Thompson, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead, and the Growing Together of the Flesh of the World

I had a friendly exchange yesterday with the cognitive scientist and philosopher Evan Thompson about his debate earlier this year with another cognitive scientist Owen Flanagan. The two distinguished thinkers disagreed about whether physicalism as currently understood can provide an adequate account of consciousness. I wanted to revisit several of the themes Evan and I discussed in our comment exchange. I suggested in a comment that, while I agree the transcendental/phenomenological perspective provides a knock-down argument against any sort of objectivist explanation of subjectivity, I’m not as certain that, having laid such dogmatism to bed, Husserlian phenomenology is capable of helping us re-construct a less naive, more robust form of ontological realism (although I do try to push the late Husserl toward such realism in this paper on ecophenomenology).

Maybe Evan isn’t as interested as I am in a post-transcendental attempt at realism. I have a lot of sympathy for the more constructivist enactive paradigm he, Francisco Varela, and Eleanor Rosch first articulated in The Embodied Mind (1993). But since my fateful encounter with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead [which occurred just about the same time I was reading Evan's next book, Mind in Life (2007)], I realized I needed to think constructivism ontologically, rather than epistemologically. Which is to say, I needed to think being as a process of self-construction, rather than being constructed by thought.

Now to be fair, as I understand the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy that Varela and Thompson draw upon in their articulation of enactivism, nothing is to prevent us from interpreting the “dependent co-arising” of all things in ontological terms. Whitehead himself acknowledged that in certain respects his “process-relational” ontology bears more resemblance to certain stains of Indian and Buddhist than to Western thought (see Process and Reality, pgs. 244, 342-343). For Whitehead, every actual occasion of experience is internally related to every other actual occasion. This means that there is nothing in the universe that can exist independently of anything else (for Whitehead, this includes even God). Everything there is emerges in concert with everything else. On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly argued against the over-simplification that Whitehead reduces individual occasions of experience to their global relations (HERE, HERE, HERE). Like Varela, who attempts to displace the old substantialist self with a more flexible conception of an emergent “virtual selfhood” or “subject-pole” (as he describes it in this paper just before his untimely death in 2002), Whitehead articulates individuality in terms of the “subjective form” of each occasion–an occasion’s unique feeling-toned concern for and response to the data it receives from the past occasions out of which it emerges. In this sense there is a lot of overlap between a process ontology and enactivism.

Here is what Evan had to say in a comment under my last post about his debate with Owen Flanagan:

…in my own work I follow the trajectory that arises in the later Husserl and continues in Merleau-Ponty, and that calls for a rethinking of the concept of “nature” in a post-physicalist way—one that doesn’t conceive of fundamental nature or physical being in a way that builds in the objectivist idea that such being is intrinsically or essentially non-experiential. But, again, this point doesn’t entail that nature is intrinsically or essentially experiential (this is the line that panpsychists and Whiteheadians take). (Maybe it is, but I don’t think we’re now in position to know that.) All I want to say for now (or think I have grounds for saying now) is that we can see historically how the concept of nature as physical being got constructed in an objectivist way, while at the same time we can begin to conceive of the possibility of a different kind of construction that would be post-physicalist and post-dualist–that is, beyond the divide between the “mental” (understood as not conceptually involving the physical) and the “physical” (understood as not conceptually involving the mental). This is what I had in mind when I invoked “neutral monism” or “neutral non-dualism” in the exchange with Owen.

Evan also mentioned that he plans to read Isabelle Stengers‘ recently translated book Thinking With Whitehead, at which point he’ll have a better sense for exactly what prevents him from following Whitehead all the way. I look forward to his reflections on that front. For now, I’m encouraged by his invocation of “neutral monism,” a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had a tremendous impact on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of some substratum of “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s own brand of panexperientialism.

I’ll leave you with this lecture by David Kleinberg-Levin on Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, including his understanding of the elemental flesh of the world. Thinking with Whitehead, I’d argue, can help us follow the late Merleau-Ponty’s desire not only to unify the mind with the flesh of the body, but mind and body with the flesh of the world. In this way, as Levin puts it, things become a prolongation of my body, just as my body becomes a prolongation of the world. (The authors of the recently published Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought agree with the tremendous potential for cross-fertilization of these two thinkers).


Panpsychism and Its Emergent Discontents

Several of us got into a discussion on my FaceBook page regarding panpsychism and emergentism. On some accounts, if a philosopher rejects dualism and so desires to ontologically integrate what common folks normally call mental with what natural scientists understand to be material, her only option is to develop either a panpsychist or an emergentist account, broadly construed.

The emergentist philosopher (again broadly speaking) denies that mental qualities are ontologically basic and so must explain how a material universe consisting of only mass bearing particles in changing spatial relations could have generated not only abstract ideas and concepts (like those employed by the scientists in their knowledge of said particles), but concrete bodily feelings (like those seemingly experienced by many if not all living organisms). In other words, emergentists are burdened with the rather hard question “How did matter become mind?”

The panpsychist philosopher, on the other hand (my final broad generalization, I promise!), affirms that mental qualities are just as ontologically basic as the material entities studied by physicists. Mind is not said to emerge from matter, since in a manner of speaking mind is just the “inside” of matter and matter the “outside” of mind. The mental aspect of a thing is understood to intensify as its material aspect increases in complexity. The panpsychist is tasked with the somewhat more tractable (but still undoubtedly difficult) problem of explaining how exactly the “inside” (measured in intensity) and the “outside” (measured in complexity) of a thing relate.

If the two positions are construed in this over-generalized way, I’m more sympathetic toward panpsychism, but with reservations. My reservations arise because I think a more coherent ontology is possible that recognizes the fundamentality of both emergence and experience. I’ve turned increasingly to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism during the course of my graduate studies because I think he created an open system of concepts capable of constructing such an ontology. Instead of arguing on the extremes–either that psyches or that particles are fundamental to reality–it is possible to think the most fundamental entities in a process-relational way as neither self-identical minds nor externally related physical particles. Entities–things themselves–can be thought of as emergent products of an underlying relational nexus of creative experience. Experience is not a attribute of a thing; it is never “had” by a self-identical entity; it is not a secondary property adhering to a primary substance. Experience is always relational, it is always between entities rather than “inside” them. It is hard to speak clearly about experience, since it tends to confuse things, to mix them up with one another.

In a discussion of the fundamentality of experience in Modes of Thought (110-111), Whitehead writes:

The sense of totality obscures the analysis into self and others. Also this division is primarily based on the sense of existence as a value experience. Namely, the total value experience is discriminated into this value experience and those value experiences. There is the vague sense of many which are one; and of one which includes the many. Also there are two senses of the one–namely, the sense of the one which is all, and the sense of the one among the many.

The fundamental basis of this description is that our experience is a value experience, expressing a vague sense of maintenance or discard; and that this value experience differentiates itself in the sense of many existences with value experience; and that this sense of the multiplicity of value experiences again differentiates it into the totality of value experience, and the many other value experiences, and the egoistic value experience. This is the feeling of the ego, the others, the totality. This is the vague, basic presentation of the differentiation of existence, in its enjoyment of discard and maintenance. We are, each of us, one among others; and all of us are embraced in the unity of the whole.

The basis of democracy is the common fact of value experience, as constituting the essential nature of each pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole. This characterizes the meaning of actuality. By reason of this character, constituting reality, the conception of morals arises. We have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe. Existence, in its own nature, is the upholding of value intensity. Also no unit can separate itself from the others, and from the whole. And yet each unit exists in its own right. It upholds value intensity for itself, and this involves sharing value intensity with the universe. Also either of these aspects is a factor in the other.

We have been considering the dim foundation of [conscious] experience. In animal experience there supervenes a process of keen discrimination of quality. The sense experiences, such as sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and so on, are distinguished. Also within each such species of quality, clear distinctions are discerned, for example, red and green, distinctions of note, distinctions of taste.

With the rise of clear sensations relating themselves to the universe of value-feeling, the world of human experience is defined.

Whitehead draws a distinction between two modes of experience that are crucial to the success of his conceptual scheme: experience in the mode of presentational immediacy and experience in the mode of causal efficacy. The former is generally conscious and allows us to distinguish each of the five channels of sensation, and within each of these channels to clearly identify the distinct qualities of our surrounding environment. The latter is generally unconscious and provides us with a felt-sense of bodily reference, or energetic inheritance emerging out of our own organism’s recent past. I say “generally” for each mode because we often make highly refined distinctions in and evaluations of our environment without consciousness, and because the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness in experience cannot be clearly drawn.

As I said above, it is the nature of experience to be confusing, and so to cause things to “grow together” (or concresce), though in the higher animals and especially humans, experience reaches tremendous clarity. This clarity is won at the cost of massive elimination, and in some cases repression, of the temporal horizons of consciousness (i.e., birth and death, sleeping and waking).
If we deliberately turn our attention to perceptual experience in search of its limit, doesn’t this limit seem to recede into an infinite fractal of “little perceptions”? To everyday consciousness, sensory perception of the external world appears to have a finite resolution (i.e., it resolves itself in certain definite qualitative patterns). But if we follow Whitehead by turning attention to our feelings of bodily reference, the clarity and distinctness of experience dissolves into a vague swarm of actual occasions (e.g., try closing your eye-lids and pressing on them).

Related posts

Wordsworth’s Poetic Vision in Light of Whitehead’s Theory of Perception

Reflections on the Astrality of Materiality

Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects has a few new post up (HERE and HERE) about the contingently constructed concept of “nature” and about his own flavor of monistic materialism.

Bryant and I have argued in the past about his materialism and its lack of formal and final causality. I’ve been claiming that ideas and purposes are real, while he continues to argue that only corporeal things, their causal interactions, and the void in which they interact constitute real things. From his perspective, what we call qualitative forms or deliberate intentions are either alternative names for what are really entirely material activities (gene transcription, electro-chemo-neural synchronization, economic exchange, information transfer, etc.), or they are nothing.

I side with Whitehead in affirming the reality of eternal forms, not as existing independently of time and materiality, but as always already involved in what we scientifically know and religiously feel to be the process of cosmic animation. Materiality is animality. In every moment this actual universe is repossessed by the past and resurrected into the eternal possibilities of the future. We participate each second in the life divine, a cosmic life with total ethical memory and perfect aesthetic values, even if without demiurgic omnipotence (i.e., the divine that we all are has no transcendent power over a soulless materiality, since the divine simply is the soul of this universe–the divine may be omnipotent in another sense, only because it both affects and is affected by everything else which exists [see Plato’s Sophist, 247e, where he writes that “the definition of being is simply power”).

Our collective existence here on earth beneath the sky (as humans, dogs, cows, rats, snakes, banyans, ants, prokaryotes, proteins, molecules, etc., etc.) participates in more than what is materially present in some simply located separate slice of the Einsteinian space-time loaf. We exist in excess of any mathematically calculable grid. Each moment of actual becoming–each drop of experience–is temporally open to past and future. Each drop is the genetic precipitate of remembered acts called forth beyond habit into the life of everlasting divine forms and values. Every moment arises amidst the ingression of new possibilities given what it has already actualized. The present is pervaded by past and future, the soul linked materially to what it has been and spiritually to what it might become.

Form is not alien to matter, but is its very soul, the fire which animates it. Levi himself recently used the image of fire to describe materiality. This is a metaphor I am willing to follow quite far, so far as to suggest that embodiment acts as the soul’s athanor, and that the intensity of a body’s astrality (its ensoulment) depends upon the temperature to which it can be raised without too quickly consuming itself in the flames of its own metabolism. Bryant draws on the philosopher-poet Lucretius when he describes his ontology as consisting of nothing but material bodies, their interactions, and the void. I’d draw on Böhme and Schelling to suggest, in contrast to Bryant, that creative productivity, rather than this productivity’s arrested products or corporeal excretions (natura naturata), is ontologically fundamental. Productivity (natura naturans) is the ungrounded ground; not a substance or multiplicity of substances, but an unspeakable tension is at the base of all logos and all ontos. Schelling and Böhme describe this groundless source as a triune polarity between gravity and light. The polarity can become balanced, producing a star, a soul. The star shines outward even as it consumes itself from within. It can last for billions of years. This balance is a formal possibility actualized in the time of its shining. It dies when its time runs out, when its light sinks again into darkness. But in its death, the form achieves objective immorality and is passed on in the form of new forms: heavier elements which again, through the tension of gravity and light, come to life in ever new ways. Form is forever infecting everything with novelty.


Update: Bryant responds HERE

I’ve been reading Jason Wirth’s The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2003). He describes on page 87 in Schellingian terms what I’ve argued here and in comments under Bryant’s response in Whiteheadian terms: that nature is not designed by a demiurge, since nature itself is the demiurge. Here is a link to p. 87 via Google books.

The Eternal Form of Philosophy (a response to Archive Fire)

Michael/Archive Fire has just written a gracious and astute response to my recent comment about Whitehead’s reformed Platonism. He has made me aware of the fact that my referring to Whitehead or to Plato in the hopes that they offer some sort of authoritative disambiguation is insufficient to support the arguments I am trying to make. I cannot expect Michael to read a large portion of Whitehead’s, or Plato’s corpus, nor guarantee that if he were to read these, he’d interpret them in the same way that I do. If I have any hope of adequately responding to Michael, its because I will be able to translate my reformed Platonism into forms of expression that he finds interesting (if I do draw on authority, maybe Schelling’s will be more rhetorically effective… He also is inevitably mixed up in any philosophical pie I may try to bake). Philosophical adequacy means keeping the conversation going, i.e., keeping the logos flowing.

My process philosophy is rheological, like Michael’s; but it is not just that, not just a scientific study of the flow of matter in the world. It is also a love of the way of wisdom in the world. Philosophy–at least as it was known when the word, and the way of life, was brought forth and developed in the pre- and post-Socratic philosophers–is concerned not only with contingent flows but with the “becoming of being,” the way of eternity, the living unity of the temporal universe.

Unity is the first form, the universal archetype, of philosophy; its first task is to express this unity in the multiplicities of its logoi and to discover it in the differentiations of its cosmoi. There are many important philosophical questions, among them (1) Why do things fall apart? Why Chaos? and (2) Why do things rise to attention? Why Order? I would not privilege (1) over (2), not only because both questions lead in interesting directions, keeping the logos flowing, but because I would not know what chaos was unless I had order to compare it with (and vice versa). Natural science itself already assumes the unity of the universe, that it is cosmos despite its chaos, even where it seems to methodologically require that intelligent freedom be kept distinct from a contingent and purposeless reality (i.e., that some mixture of mentality not be assumed to exist already in all materiality). This seeming methodological requirement of a modest witness to objectify neutral matter cannot be metaphysically justified. Philosophy, if it is to be anything more than an apology for nominalistic materialism, is the attempt to think the complex unity of intelligence and nature, to participate in the One Life organizing the whole. Schelling described the character of this complex unity as follows:

“Is it not manifest, that the tendency to posit the infinite in the finite and conversely the later in the former, is dominant in all philosophical speech and investigations? To think this form is [as] eternal as the essence of that which is expressed in it, and it has not just now begun, and nor will it ever cease; it is, as Socrates in Plato says, the immortal, never changing characteristic of every investigation” (from Bruno, Or on the Natural and the Divine Principle of Things (1802), I/4).

But what about Michael’s concern to bring forth a philosophy afresh? He called for “anarchic re-engagement” with tradition to avoid the tried and true pitfalls of ontotheological metaphysics. I share his concerns, even while I find tradition important (even if it is a pre-scientific and aristocratic tradition). When Whitehead wrote that philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, I believe he meant to say that he thought in the spirit, if not always in the letter, of Plato. After all, as Whitehead also suggests, most of the best criticisms of what has come to be called Platonic philosophy are in Plato’s own dialogues. Further, though Plato’s political views have come to seem oppressive to us today, in his own time, his critiques of myth and attempt to establish a society based on true merit, rather than tyrannical power, were rather progressive.

I’d prefer not to have this post turn into a defense of Plato, since Michael asked to know what I think, not what I’ve read. But then again, if I’m honest, it is hard to tell where what I’ve read and who I’ve conversed with ends and what I think or who I am begins. A kind of alchemical hermeneutics would seem to be at play here, making it impossible for me to disentangle my identity from my influences.

On to some of Michael’s specific comments:

We only have limited access to the contingencies of nature as they have unfolded so far but there is nothing that leads me to believe that the so-called “laws of nature” won’t change barring some future cosmic event.

Eternity’s participation in time does not imply the erasure of contingencies or the permanence of physical laws. Laws are cosmic habits. They could have been otherwise. What couldn’t have been otherwise is that cosmic memory (i.e., intelligence as it acts in time) would form habits of some kind. Meillassoux’s absolute contingency–hyperchaos–is an interesting thought experiment, but as a cosmological principle I just can’t bring myself to accept it. In reality, there is no pure contingency, just as there is no pure necessity: there is only a mixture of each. Laws, as habits, can and do change, but as a moving image of eternity. Like Harman, I refuse to give up on the principle of sufficient reason, even while I (following Schelling) find it necessary to think reason without the law of non-contradiction (thinking reason with contradiction is where I think a process ontology is most helpful).

Michael goes on to speak of the

“anarchistic expansion, diversification, and complexification…inaugurated by the primordial expression of potency in our cosmos, otherwise known as the ‘big-bang.’”

The “big-bang” theory is surely one of the strangest and most wonderful ideas to emerge from scientific investigation of the universe. Here, I think Michael and I have the most in common, though I’d again emphasize that I am lead by such an idea to a sense of the profound unity of the universe (i.e., all matter-energy and space-time shares a common origin) no less than to its capacity for differentiation.

There remains, finally, an important discussion to be had regarding the nature of qualities and quantities, but alas, I’ve run out of time and energy tonight and will have to take up that challenge later.

Coleridge and Barfield on Life, Imagination, and Reality

Continuing with Barfield’s (I think masterful) attempt (What Coleridge Thought, 1971) to give the definitive philosophical statement of a thinker who never seems to have gotten around to doing the same for himself, here are a few more reflections…

Barfield judges Coleridge a genius. Perhaps so, but the latter said of his own existant philosophical prose that it looks “like the fragments of the winding steps of an old ruined tower” (Bibliographia Literaria, Ch. 13). With this image, Coleridge seems to admit that, whether he be an architectural genius or not, his readers will certainly have to be if they hope to ascend to the top of the tower to take in the sublime view of the world he was attempting to cook up (in the alchemical sense). In the margins of his library books, in letters to his friends, and in powerful but evasive aphorisms is buried a complete philosophical system. After Barfield’s house cleaning, we are provided with a 200 page book that doesn’t so much sum it all up, as though recounting it in a list, but organizes it in such a way that it begins where it ends and ends where it begins, turning it into a whole made out of parts which themselves are nothing less than the whole (“entire in each and one in all”). Beginning with the metaphysical trinity of Logic, Nature, and Power (Father, Son, and Spirit), he then moves on to Life. Philosophically, if not religiously speaking (i.e., according to reason rather than revelation), we can only aim to end at the realization of the Divine Triunity; we cannot begin there. We must begin, instead, with life, and its partner, death (what Barfield and Coleridge refer to as “outness”).

Coleridge’s theory of life stands not opposite Darwin’s theory but behind it. At first glance, it seems opposed, but this is impossible, since Darwin had no theory of life at all. His was a theory about speciation, leaving life itself to be explained otherwise: he speculates it was “originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one” on the last page of On the Origin of Species. Though he may ultimately have had other cosmological commitments than Coleridge (i.e., of the Newtonian-Cartesian sort), the validity of Darwin’s theory of speciation, so far as it goes, does not rule out the possibility that Coleridge was also right about life. In fact, Coleridge’s theory of life may indeed provide the ontological grounding for the very phenomenon described by Darwin, whereas that described by Newton (atoms in motion governed by fixed laws) does not. Only if we mistake Darwin’s model for how nature really is, rather than one way nature can be made to appeardo we commit the fatal sin of idol worship by fancying the world as essentially dead extended stuff “out there.” So long as we recognize that it is no theory at all, but a hypothesis regarding appearances–not an explanation for an appearance, but a predictive model about how certain appearances lead to other appearances–then Darwin’s remains a crucial insight into the general behavior of life. There is no doubt that inheritance with modification coupled with selection pressures resulting from sex and death can lead to the differentiation of life. But this is no explanation for life. The “how?” and the “what?” of the thing itself transforming through the generations into a variety of species is left unaccounted for. “How?” cannot be explained with a mechanical design, deistic or natural, since life is not built from the outside, but generated from within. Life cannot be put together out of merely external parts, but must be seen to grow from living seeds, each with the formative power of the whole solar system already inside them.

To explain life, Barfield argues, we require a dynamic and thoroughly evolutionary cosmology, since:

“we can never reach and recognize the idea of change [evolution] in nature, if our idea of nature itself is exclusively a picture of bodies already formed [natura naturata]. This very picture however is the one which the Cartesian dichotomy between mind and matter had been busy riveting on the mind of the Western world through the two hundred years before Coleridge’s birth. That it is a false picture; that elementary particles do not merely exist from eternity and keep on setting to partners; that the proposition ‘matter has no inward‘ is a false proposition, was accordingly not simply an interesting metaphysical speculation, but a vital and neglected, or ‘lost,’ verity which he felt he had to re-establish before he could usefully say anything else to his contemporaries upon almost any subject, whether religion, politics, history, imagination, or life” (p. 42, WCT).

To grasp Coleridge requires genius. To grasp the nature of life requires imagination. It is a totally contrary perspective to the one we are used to taking for granted as true, where “substance becomes shadow, and shadow substance”: Coleridge asks us to see imagination as reality. The one reality, the cause and origin of the self, the world, and all things, is nothing other than imagination. So, what is imagination? Creatively discovering its essence was the endless task Coleridge set himself from at least the moment he first read Plato, Plotinus, and Ficino as a teenager (p. 72, WCT), but certainly it began to occupy the bulk of his philosophical attention by the time he was exposed to Wordsworth’s poetry in 1795. By 1817, he had written his clearest and most definitive statement concerning the nature and genesis of imagination:

“Imagination, then, I consider as either primary or secondary. The primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still identical with the former in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.”

Modern, post-Cartesian common sense is to imagine that imagining happens somewhere inside the head, that it peeks through the inlets of the senses at an external world and more or less represents what is “out there.” Properly speaking, from Coleridge and Barfield’s perspective, we shouldn’t call this sort of idol worship “imagining” at all, but fancying. The difference between imagination and fancy was central to Coleridge’s philosophy (very similar to the distinction between understanding and reason). Imagination is an act of “separative projection” (p. 76, WCT), a will which, like self-conscious thinking, is one with the products of its own productivity. At the primary level, the level of the eternal creation of the macrocosm, this act of imagination takes place without our consciousness. Genius, however, grants some human beings (like Coleridge and Wordsworth) the power to approach self-consciousness of their participatory role in the co-creation of the microcosm at the secondary level: “they know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them” (Biographia Literaria, ch. 13). As Paracelsus put it,

“He who is born in imagination discovers the latent forces of Nature…Besides the stars that are established, there is yet another–Imagination–that begets a new star and a new heaven.”

Ordinary adult human beings are, through education, made entirely unconscious of the activity of secondary imagination, and so can rely only upon fancy to provide them with an understanding of the universe as made up of “fixities and definites” (ibid.). Fancy in the absence of imagination (i.e., understanding without reason) can only lead to the belief that the substance of things is made of inanimate matter, and that mind is but a display and a storehouse of impressions caused by this matter.

On the other hand, Barfield explains,

“for Coleridge, because man did not create himself, there is indeed an actual (I-Thou) relation subject and natural object; but, since man is to be free, it is also a genetic and a progressive one. Phylogenetically that progressive relation is nature. Ontogenetically it is imagination” (p. 77, WCT).

As Coleridge himself put it, drawing on Plotinus,

The first range of hills, that encircles the scanty vale of human life, is the horizon for the majority of its inhabitants. On its ridges the common sun is born and departs. From them the stars rise, and touching them they vanish. By the many, even this range, the natural limit and bulwark of the vale is but imperfectly known. Its higher ascents are too often hidden by mists and clouds from uncultivated swamps, which few have courage or curiosity to penetrate. To the multitude below these vapors appear, now as the dark haunts of terrific agents, on which none may intrude with impunity; and now all a-glow, with colours not their own, they are gazed at as the splendid palaces of happiness and power. But in all ages there have been a few, who measuring and sounding the rivers of the vale at the feet of their furthest inaccessible falls have learned, that the sources must be far higher and far inward; a few, who even in the level streams have detected elements, which neither the vale itself or the surrounding mountains contained or could supply. How and whence to these thoughts, these strong probabilities, the ascertaining vision, the intuitive knowledge may finally supervene, can be learnt only by the fact. I might oppose to the question the words with which Plotinus supposes NATURE to answer a similar difficulty. “Should any one interrogate her, how she works, if graciously she vouchsafe to listen and speak, she will reply, it behoves thee not to disquiet me with interrogatories, but to understand in silence even as I am silent, and work without words.” Likewise in the fifth book of the fifth Ennead, speaking of the highest and intuitive knowledge as distinguished from the discursive, or in the language of Wordsworth, “The vision and the faculty divine;” he says: “it is not lawful to enquire from whence it sprang, as if it were a thing subject to place and motion, for it neither approached hither, nor again departs from hence to some other place; but it either appears to us or it does not appear. So that we ought not to pursue it with a view of detecting its secret source, but to watch in quiet till it suddenly shines upon us; preparing ourselves for the blessed spectacle as the eye waits patiently for the rising sun.” They and they only can acquire the philosophic imagination, the sacred power of self-intuition, who within themselves can interpret and understand the symbol, that the wings of the air-sylph are forming within the skin of the caterpillar; those only, who feel in their own spirits the same instinct, which impels the chrysalis of the horned fly to leave room in its involucrum for antennæ yet to come. They know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them! In short, all the organs of sense are framed for a corresponding world of sense; and we have it. All the organs of spirit are framed for a correspondent world of spirit:  though the latter organs are not developed in all alike.  But they exist in all, and their first appearance discloses itself in the moral being (Biographia Literaria, ch. 12).

Theism/Atheism: Imagination and Ontological Openness

There is no need to oppose one possibility with the other. Speculative philosophy’s task is to overcome the dualistic limitations of sense-understanding (subject v. object, quality v. substance) by way of a schematic renewal of (or participatory intervention into) our habitual way of imaging the world. Speculative philosophy must hold the binary (God/no-God) together to form a coherent image of the universe. The question is not: “does God exist?” but “what is the universe such that God does and does not exist?” Theism makes no sense without the possibility of atheism, and vice versa: they are interdependent, sometimes parasitic, sometimes symbiotic modes of thought.

I would employ religious language by suggesting that “Faith” is a pre-requisite for knowledge of the speculative kind, whether banal or beatific. “Doubt” is a pre-requisite for knowledge of the scientific kind. Scientists don’t ask: “is it true?” but “can it be tested?” Without doubt, faith is blind; but without faith, doubt is closed to the experience of truth. How can philosophy hold faith and doubt, experiential potentiality and experimental verification, together? I continue to struggle to think their coincidence.

Speculation requires opening one’s imagination to the possible, so as to prepare oneself for the perception of what is actual. The search for “proof” is not the primary aim of speculative philosophy, since it operates on an imaginative plane of cognition interested in increasing the conceptual potentiality and aesthetic intensity of experience. Truth co-emerges with valuation and enjoyment, and so instead of attempting to prove anything, I aim only to express and suggest, to seek out exciting propositions whose “errors” (in Whitehead’s sense) are productive of greater beauty and goodness. The aim of speculative philosophy is the transformation of perceptual conflicts into novel conceptual contrasts. Then truth need no longer be opposed to falsity, since it is precisely because of its mistakes that the universe realizes itself as itself. The universe is not “really” a monadic God, or “really” an atomic aggregate. It is more like an unfolding process of nomadic cosmogenesis.

Towards an Eco-Ontology

Adam over at Knowledge Ecology has posted about the need for a pluralistic ontology in thinking the differences between nature and culture. I’ve copied my response to him below:
Another stimulating post, Adam. I love the thinkers you are bringing into conversation. I have not yet read Carolan’s essay, but I have a few comments to share about your summary.

You write that “physical environments can exist without social environments, but not the reverse.” What do you mean, exactly, by “physical” in this context? I remain convinced that Whitehead’s organic realism is the most fruitful approach to take if we are trying to bring forth a cosmology without undue ontological divisions between human beings and every other kind of being, whether they be dolphin beings, flamingo beings, sequoia beings, or helium and hydrogen beings. To say that physical environments precede social environments suggests that molecules, atoms, protons, etc., relate to one another in fundamentally non-living, non-semiotic ways; which is to say, they hardly relate at all, they simply crash into and pull at one another blindly. If we are going to call these physical “environments,” then we are already implying that physical beings “live” in relation to one another, that they are each autonomous boundary generating systems that live amongst other such systems within larger communities of constitutive relations. What are stars but collectives of hydrogen and helium atoms whose gravitational, electronic, and magnetic means of semiosis bring them into emergent social relations, relations so tightly woven that, at least from our earthly perspective, these collectives become autonomous beings in their own right? Are there really physical environments that aren’t always already social? Perhaps you could speak of isolated quarks as asocial beings; but they are almost always artificially separated in human laboratories, and all indications are that even these sub-atomic forms of self-organization are constituted by social relations between even smaller beings. I am pretty sure you agree, it is ecosystems all the way down, which is why I was surprised to read this statement.

Of course, we don’t want to just collapse nature into culture, or physics into society. But as long we realize that “culture” and “society” have never been purely human endeavors, I think a panexperiential or pansemiotic approach is quite fruitful. DNA is, after all, a kind of language. I don’t think genes operate on an entirely different ontological plane then human symbolism and communication. They are both processes that obey the same semiotic logic, and though the latter may be associated with greater degrees of reflexivity and consciousness, the former is the ground and condition of the latter: if my cells stopped communicating with each other, I would very quickly lose the capacity to speak with you.

What I would want to suggest is that we need a stratified or layered ontology to distinguish the multiplicity of umwelts that make up the universe. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that there are ultimately multiple ontologies, since this seems to me to be only another form of reductionism (just a reduction to the many, instead of to the one). There are many distinct umwelts, or worlds brought forth through differing modes of sensory relation. But hey all exist in and as the same encompassing sphere of Being as part of the same universe (at least unless we are going to say that there are some beings we will never, ever, even in principle, come into relation with–which is quite possible, but in that case, even to speak of them is already to assume some relation, thereby bringing them into our sphere). So we could say there are as many worlds, niches, or umwelts as there are kinds of organism, but that each overlaps to varying degrees within a single cosmos. Perhaps, instead of talking about “nature” as some monolithic category, we could speak of “Earth,” which is undeniably the common ground of all the middle-sized creatures threatened by technoindustrial capitalism. Earth is the singular body that houses multiple ecologies.

In terms of an OOO, I think this is where human beings start to become unique, since only we seem capable of thinking about how ‘real’ objects condition ‘sensory’ objects. In other words, only we worry about ontology. The ecological crisis is deeply related to our failed ontology, but I think it still makes sense to seek out a common ground of being with all lifeforms, since it is precisely our human inability to live in relation to other worldlings that has generated a mass extinction. I don’t think a sort of “live and let live” respect for irreducible difference is realistic anymore, we are too enmeshed with the rest of the Earth community for such enlightened ignorance to work. Beings may always withdraw from one another, but in this very quality of mutual mysteriousness, we have something in common.

Bruno Latour approaching an Object-Oriented Ontology

The following is another exchange with friend and colleague Adam Robbert in response to an essay by Bruno Latour. First, a short excerpt from the article “On Interobjectivity“:

Social worlds remain flat at all points, without there being any folding that might permit a passage from the “micro” to the “macro.” For example the traffic control room for Paris busses does indeed dominate the multiplicity of busses, but it would not know how to constitute a structure “above” the interactions of the bus drivers. It is added on to those interactions. The old difference of levels comes merely from overlooking the material connections that permit one place to be linked to others…

My initial response:

Latour is refreshingly worldly and specific, especially in comparison to all the abstract metaphysics I’ve been reading lately. But the metaphysical issues stuck out at me nonetheless. What is a non-human society? What is a non-human individual? I think an object-orientation levels out this dichotomy in a helpful way. There are social interactions all the way down, with social norms being contested at every opportunity by the things performing them. Formative causes (wholes/souls) are not the result of a pre-existing morphogenic field floating atop the merely bodily interactions at a lower level, but are entangled in these interactions, responsible to them, subject to their revolutionary transformations. I think there is still a certain mystery to how cells become animals, or how the Führer can bring a nation of individuals together against a common enemy. But this mystery is present at every level of ontology, rather than just the social or the animal (or the human). How do parts become wholes? How do wholes become parts? Is there any authentic/artificial boundary to be drawn between those wholes found in nature (like elements, organisms, solar systems, galaxies) and those fabricated by humans (nation-states, artifacts, identities)? I suppose it is helpful to make distinctions here, but not ontological dichotomies.

Latour’s call to let objects back into sociology is related to what I was struggling to express earlier today in my blog about the mutually untranslatable (or at least folded and obscured) layers constituting reality. Latour writes on p. 240: “Social worlds remain flat at all points, without there being any folding that might permit a passage from the ‘micro’ to the ‘macro.’” The relation to my thought was that certain objects exist only for other objects at the same level, and the narratives and social life they compose are only locally relevant. Sometimes these local layers come into contact with objects on other layers, whether more directly or more peripherally, and are able to narratively co-exist.

For instance, through the techniques developed by Claude Shannon, the language of human beings was translated into the informational terms of electronic beings to be amplified and mobilized at the speed of light across the world. These worlds, the human and the electronic, now co-exist narratively (though it is an asymmetrical co-existence, since humans seem to know more about what electrons mean than electrons know about what we mean).

But without a material link or trace of translation, one layer of beings cannot step outside its network of relations to grasp some ontologically more foundational macro-level ruling over all the local relations within it. This is the limit to knowledge placed on an object oriented knowledge. It is not an ultimate limit, though, since it leaves open the possibility that translational links to higher levels as yet undreamt of could be found.

Adam’s reply:

It seems to me that an appropriate compliment to any speculative practice or ontological schematizing (I think both words are still better than metaphysics) is almost always anthropology or political science. Metaphysics does baffling things to the brain (at least to this brain) and it is definitely helpful (essential?) to engage with sociological issues as Latour does, not just for the mental balancing this provides but more centrally because the whole point of studying ontology is in fact to be of service to the world by thinking through its basic structures carefully. Without a socio-political dimension ontology is for me bankrupt (though this doesn’t mean we have to reduce our ontological speculation to what we consider to be social or political). Latour is one of those few individuals who can handle both socio-historical issues and ontological ones with skill and competence.

Thinking through Latour’s paper on interobjectivity is difficult precisely because of the points you are raising (“What is a non-human society? What is a non-human individual?”) If we, as Latour suggests, are able to extend the notion of society to nonhuman actors, then the question becomes whether or not we should think of human societies as different only in kind than in nature from other types of nonhuman societies. Historically this question seems to be a reductionist black hole (“its all nature,” “its all culture”). In this context appealing to naturalism or relativism is beside the point.

A flat ontology, which describes all objects/actors as equally “real” also leaves much to be desired in this regard. Even breaking up the flatness by distinguishing between “real” and “sensual” qualities does not push the notion of an ontology of politics far enough- though perhaps the inevitable negotiations between the real and the sensual does constitute a basis for considering social negotiations to be present on a cosmological level. OOO [object-oriented ontology], I think, is hard at work filling in the gaps, and there is definitely much more work to be done here.

Then there is the more mainstream view of someone like E.O. Wilson who writes:

“But what is Nature? The simplest possible answer is also the best: Nature is that part of the original environment and its life forms that remains after the human impact. Nature is all on planet Earth that has no need of us and can stand alone.”

It becomes clear that the human/nature dichotomy is not a particularly helpful framework at this stage in the game, but none the less it goes to show how much more specific and accurate we could be in producing a realist (not just materialist) account of ecological relationships between the human and nonhuman world, and perhaps more crucially in this context, in accounting for ecological relationships on internal and external levels between nonhuman actors themselves. Wilson’s above statement would only make sense if ecology asserted itself as the study of the relationship between humans and their environment, but of course ecology is the study of organisms and their environments. Wilson’s odd claim in the above paragraph can be read as the consequence of hundreds of years of correlationist thinking- even a renowned scientist who studies the objective relationships between nonhuman organisms and their environments manages to lump the whole planet into two distinct categories- “nature” and “humans!” This strikes me as an ideological fallacy given that the biologist is the one for whom a real nonhuman world is the most central cornerstone of their worldview! That one can suggest that “Nature” can only be defined in the negative, as anything not human, implies that humans are the only ones capable of having an experience of a real world, a strange moment of cognitive dissonance indeed. I also find it quite plausible to consider the notion that the biologist and the ecologist do not necessarily have to engage in ecological thinking in order to perform their functions as scientists.

I suppose the question becomes which ecological schema one uses to understand concepts like evolution, culture or nature. For the niche-construction theorist for example the organism is constantly transforming its environment both mechanically by burrowing or building nests and so forth, and chemically by breathing out/secreting transformed chemical compounds that feed back into larger ecocyles. In this respect it is not just humans who are posed the question “what did Nature look like before I got here?” but it is in fact a question, perhaps not posed, but at least present, as a component of any organism’s relation to its environment. Strictly speaking, “environments” do not exist without organisms to surround, just as there can be no organism without an environment. Evolution is a historically contingent process for all organisms. For humans and for any other creature that would record its own history, this contingency is simply doubled by the fact that not only is our own developmental and evolutionary biology a historically contingent process, but the methods we use to interpret and structure our knowledge of those processes are also historically contingent- perhaps greatly more so. Thus I think it reasonable that, in their own species-specific way, all creatures experience a “Nature for me” versus a “Nature in itself” interpretive dilemma. I suppose any claim that humans and other organisms are in some way alike in their interpretive processes requires some disclaimer or permit which states “I have not partaken in the deadly sin of anthropomorphism” but I mean my comments more as thought excercises than as literal truisms (though I do find the possibility of amoeba debating the merits of an enlightenment view of nature over a romantic one rather entertaining- someone call Pixar!).

I think it’s a sad state of affairs when a scientist like Wilson has to resort to an almost dogmatic naturalism in order to refute an equally dogmatic anti-realist position. I understand Wilson’s assertion of “Nature” to be a call to recognize the world’s own objectivity – surely a worthy cause – in the context of the continued onslaught of postmodern philosophies that claim no such objective world can exist. But these two poles must be abandoned for both do damage to a genuine ecology of the real (perhaps an ecological realism?), which in my opinion is what Latour is aiming for. Latour paves a way out of naturalism and relativism, his notion of interobjectivity alongside of various new approaches to evolution such as Niche-Construction Theory (NCT) are promising endeavors in articulating a more comprehensive view of ecology- one that would take multiple perspectives seriously as ontological positions and not just as epistemological variations on an incomprehensible reality. I also agree that ontological distinctions need to be made, whilst avoiding ontological dichotomies. I am compelled by the thought that the notion of ecology can produce the kind of ontological stratification that these issues require. I think a three-fold model of ecology (what I’ve been calling Nature, Media and Knowledge), coupled with a four-fold approach to actors (objective, subjective, participatory and object-oriented) could clear some of this up. I’m excited to see how all of this develops.

My subsequent response:

I would want to preserve the more general category “metaphysics,” because there are at least three modes of ontological schematizing that are different enough to deserve their own sub-categories: there is ontology, the study of the Being of beings; there is onticology, the study of beings; and there is cosmology, the study of the relation between Being and beings.

I think ontology touches politics most closely through cosmology, and so a cosmopolitics is definitely the right route to take in thinking the relation between Being and beings (mysticla or revelatory relations?), and that between and among beings themselves (political relations). A cosmopolitics would require that the human/universe divide be demoted from a unique ontological chasm to just another ontic example of a tension that exists between sensuality and reality for all finite beings. But this still leaves the other mode of ontological schematizing, that concerned with Being itself. The concept of infinity broke open the medieval conception of Being as a static perfection. The modern and postmodern conception of Being, if such a concept can still be said to effectively exist, is uncertain, alienated, and skeptical: ontology has been associated with mere dogmatism or naïveté. But for a cosmopolitics to be possible, not only must a society’s conception of beings be democratic, its approach to the study Being must be constructive (not merely transcendental or critical). Dogmatic theism is here no more helpful than atheism, since without some positive conception of Being, beings will always lack the full individual reality that prevents each one from being exhausted by its relations to others. Democracy requires that there be a relation between creator and each individual creature; otherwise what is the sameness that each being participates in allowing us to call our ontology “flat”? What is the common though subterranean topology that all things share if not Being? Infinity demands a conception of Being as non-All, as incomplete but always in the process of completion (like Whitehead’s God). This leaves each being room to transform, to surprise itself and others by undoing and overcoming the restrictions leveled upon it by its qualities and relations. Being holds all beings in ontic co-existence while also infinitely distinguishing each being from its relations. Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic of particular–>universal–>individual is relevant here: beings would be lost in their own solipsistic particularity without any universal relation to Being; only through this relation do beings become true individuals.

Society still seems to pose a problem in the above scheme, since somehow many beings on one level exist in enduring relationships that produce a single being on another level (as in multicellular animals). Cells provide the matter that receives the form of the animal, while on an adjacent level, molecules provide the matter that receives the form of each cell. Which is the true society, the molecules or the cells? Is an animal-being more real, or more complete, than a molecule-being? Is it more “complex,” in Latour’s sense of being composed of more simultaneous interactions? If these part/whole and matter/form relations continue indefinitely into the micro- and macrocosm, measures of complexity seem arbitrary. Is everything really form, or really matter? Is society a superorganism obeying a necessity higher than any of its replaceable subjects, or is it the accidental cumulative effect of the activity of individuals? Perhaps society can no longer refer to a relation among the same, but must include relations between beings on varying levels of emergence. This would entail the ecologization of the concept of society, which I think may be more to the point than Latour’s “naturalization” of society/”socialization” of nature.