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

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

I quote Stengers at length:

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

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

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

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

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