Constructive v. Critical Philosophy – Responding to Isabelle Stengers at CGU

Once it has begun to swallow the overwhelmingly wondrous fact of existence–that there is anything at all!–philosophy can perhaps catch its breath and ask the most fundamental question: what is there? From this comes the only slightly more specific questions: What is a thing? What is an idea? Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway spoke on Thursday night at Claremont Graduate University on behalf of certain risky abstractions pertaining to the reality of things and ideas, and of how they merge and diverge in the natures-cultures that constitute human sociopolitical life.

For Stengers, there are basically two approaches open to the questioning post-Kantian philosopher. The first is to ask, “What do I know?”, the second, “What can I know?” The former is speculative thinking, leaping across the gap in the circuit of perception between matter and mind by seeing into the web of relationships within which one is embedded. The latter, the critical approach, separates the knower from its object, directing attention almost exclusively to one’s own subjective activities. When the philosopher asks, “What can I know?”, she means to turn attention to the enduring conditions of subjective experience which shape and make possible any perception or understanding of the ongoing phenomena corresponding to the extra-subjective world. What the world is in itself, the realist’s question, begins to seem like a grandiose search for God’s view of the cosmos. Hubris, says Hume. Impossible, says Kant. Whitehead says not just that we can ask the first question, but that we must! Life is innately risky, because it is primarily a speculative affair.  As human creatures endowed with symbolic intelligence, we become with the spatiotemporal world of physical events and participate in the realm of eternal ideas. Like the plant-clothed entangled banks described in the final pages of Darwin’s Origin, the networks constituting the ecology of classrooms, books, images, and ideas (the philosopher’s habitat) are discernible, intelligible even, but these are definitely not actually separable one from the other, or explainable one in terms of the other. There is no dualism between mind and matter, or between discourse and nature, such that one might reduce to the other. For Whitehead, as for Stengers, propositions infect experience at all levels, from the electronic and protonic subjective forms of subatomic particles to the visual and auditory subjective forms of intelligent animals. Nature thinks about itself, whether it be the thought of hydrogen expressing the self-love that is gravity to give birth to stars or the thought of Einstein riding upon a beam of light, giving the power of the sun to earthly hands.

Abstractions, for Whitehead and Stengers, are lures for feeling. Each form of abstract description allows a different world to take shape before our imagination. We have no choice but to have speculative trust in our descriptions and the images they suggest, because we have no other basis for continuing the adventure of rationality. Contradictions and antinomies, which are oft met along the road of rational discourse, must be transformed into constructive contrasts. This transformation is the work of common sense, that most spontaneous and marvelous judge of truth, beauty, and goodness, and the light of our humanity. Not theory, but common sense, ought to be the final arbiter of our judgments. This is the Jamesian pragmatism and precursive trust that Whitehead and Stengers are committed to.

The Golden Rule of Whiteheadian philosophy of organism, according to Stengers, is that one ought never to offer abstractions that erase situatedness. Perhaps it is this very situatedness, the sense of being embedded in ecologies of meaningful matter, that generates the philosopher’s original sense of astonishment at the fact of being. Philosophy need not outgrow wonder in order to reveal the deeper nature of things. Its revelation in fact preserves wonder, opening our common sense to the adventure of a world in the making.

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A response from 9macrina9:

6 Replies to “Constructive v. Critical Philosophy – Responding to Isabelle Stengers at CGU”

  1. My reading of Whitehead is still maybe too much influenced by Kant, and so I would like to add to Kant’s “Impossible” (above) the words “– without inviting the possibility of transcendental illusion.”

    I judge that Whitehead would argue that phenomena give us things-in-themselves, and therefore, according to Kant, he cannot help but to be ‘up to his eyeballs’ in transcendental illusion.

    I think this is especially the case for those who allow themselves to imagine ‘the electronic and protonic subjective forms of subatomic particles’ under any terms that may be discernible to us – as if hydrogen has any time-sense or any outlook on the world at all (any anschauung).

    (see Kant’s treatment of Leibniz’ attempt to do the same – Appendix to Division I of the Critique, ‘The Amphiboly of Concepts of Reflection’)

    Anyway thanks for the post, and the blog, which continues to be an occasion of reflection for me from time to time.

    1. Whitehead didn’t argue that phenomena give us things in themselves. Rather, he recognized that the data of sensory experience (phenomena) are not the most primitive form of perception. Perception in the mode of causal efficacy, instead, was deemed most primary. In other words, our most basic form of contact with reality is the experience of the actual world being objectified by our subjectivity. Whitehead is not up to his eye-balls in transcendental illusions. He saw that sight occurs with the eye-balls, that they are the conditions of its possibility. But he recognized as well that light preceded the eyes, and shaped them of a kind with its own nature.

      1. Matthew, I am in complete sympathy with views which embrace the primacy of the mode of perception of causal efficacy – as far as relations between self and the external world can go. Provided we accept the secondary job of sorting errors of perception and visionary experience from facts of cause.

        On the ethical or practical plane I’m tempted to argue for a primary perception of efficient motive along the same lines. Again, with secondary error-sorting requirements. We obviously can be very wrong about motive, but we can hardly choose not to ‘see’ it in others – its the very reality of their being as decision-makers. Good religions warn against hasty judgmentalism to preserve the sanctity of motive from this tendency to ‘see’ it unbidden, I think.

        And there must be something like it on the aesthetic plane as well…

        Anyway your response helps my continuing efforts to understand Whitehead. And I enjoyed listening to the poetic words in the short clip – is that Stenger speaking?

        But Kant’s ‘transcendental illusion’ is singular, not plural, a state of seeing too much in things due to the minds tendency to indulge too far its craving for unity and system.

  2. Perhaps of interest, but back in 1999 I was contacted by Paul Olivier,
    a friend of Isabelle Stengers. Stengers cheered him on to write a book entitled THE UNIVERSE IS ONE: TOWARDS A THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE AND LIFE, University Press of America, 1999, with the following
    ISBN 0-7618-1437-X (cloth: alk. ppr.)

    The forepart of the book involves cosmology, then moves into Darwin,
    later into symbols, creative thought, evolution. The second part of the book approaches Christology as well as Platonism and Stoicism, etc.

    Stengers wrote the forward for this book, which may be out-of-print by now, but it’s quite comprehensive and a fascinating effort on the part of Olivier. As for Stengers’ involvement with this book and author, it is perhaps another facet of this interesting woman who served as an excellent collaborator with the late Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine.

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