Soul and World: Fragments written upon reading “Thinking with Whitehead” by Isabelle Stengers

Stengers has succeeded in bringing Whitehead back to life.

Whitehead’s speculative cosmology succeeds, if it does, by avoiding bifurcations between disassociated categories. Instead of placing “subjective illusion” and “objective reality” in irremediable conflict with one another; instead of separating “man” and “nature,” “mind” and “matter,” or “God” and “the World” in order to explain one as determined by the other; instead of over- or under-mining the infinite diversity of creation with a form of reductionism, Whitehead seeks out a coherent metaphysical scheme wherein such differences are made to “presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless” (Process and Reality, p. 3).

Ethics and Physics, or Religion and Science, need not be opposed modes of thought, where one battles the other for explanatory ultimacy. Is not the human activity of physics in some sense for the universe? Is not the scientific endeavor an effort of nature itself to rise up to the level of theory?, to explain and control its own creation?, to storm heaven and steal the vision and power of eternity for the betterment of the present?

“Mankind and the animals with analogous abilities are distinguished by their capacity for the introduction of novelty [in contrast to the givenness of the past]. This requires a conceptual power which can imagine, and a practical power which can effect. The role of sense experiences consists in the fact that they are manageable. The animals evolved and emphasized the superficial aspects of their connexity with nature, and thus obtained a manageable grip upon the world. The central organism which is the soul of a man is mainly concerned with the trivialities of human existence. It does not easily meditate upon the activities of fundamental bodily functions. Instead of fixing attention on the bodily digestion of vegetable food, it catches the gleam of the sunlight as it falls on the foliage. It nurtures poetry. Men are the children of the Universe, with foolish enterprises and irrational hopes. A tree sticks to its business of mere survival; and so does an oyster with some minor divergencies. In this way, the life aim at survival is modified into the human aim at survival for diversified worthwhile experience. The pitfall of philosophy is exclusive concentration on these manageable relations, to the neglect of the underlying necessities of nature,” Modes of Thought, p. 30.

Whitehead here suggests that philosophy, to the extent that it focuses narrowly on the logical necessities of thought alone, risks forgetting the physical conditions (“underlying necessities”) of these thoughts. Whitehead would agree with the materialist that the soul is inextricably bound up with nature, and is an inevitable consequence of the causal efficacy of the complex social organism through which it is actualized. But Whitehead would not agree that the soul is therefore explainable in reference to physical activity, in itself. In a complex organism, the physical activity of hydrogen atoms reflects the inherited values of a somatic environment distinguished from “nature” at large. Inside a living animal, atoms no longer behave in a way relevant to physicists, since they have become conditioned by a local ethos within which they play roles distinct from their activity in stars, galaxies, or laboratory experiments.

The ethical responsibilities of the soul and the physical necessities of nature are not in conflict with one another; rather, the soul’s desires exist by virtue of the universe’s lures. Ethics is not a consequence of Physics, if the physical be conceived abstractly as though made up of vacuous actualities devoid of experience and self-enjoyment. But Ethics may be conceived as conditioned and so implied by Physics if the physical is imagined concretely as a creative rush of subjectivities seeking more beautiful, more virtuous intensity of experience. The Good Life, for Whitehead, is not simply to survive, but to thrive.

Teilhard de Chardin, who never tired of contemplating the physics of the soul, here expresses his intuitions about the soul’s relation to digestion:

“The highest speculation and the most burning love are coupled with, and must be paid for by, an expenditure of physical energy, as we know too well. Sometimes we need bread; sometimes wine, sometimes the infusion of a chemical element or hormone; sometimes the stimulus of a color; sometimes the magic of sound passing through our ears as a vibration and emerging in our brain in the form of an inspiration. There is no doubt that material energy and spiritual energy hold together and are prolonged by something. Ultimately, somehow or other there must be only a single energy at play in the world. And the first idea that comes to mind is to see the “soul” as a center of transmutation, where through all the avenues of nature the power of bodies converges in order to become interiorized and sublimated in beauty and truth,” The Human Phenomenon, p. 29-30.

I believe Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, Creativity, provides the “something,” and the process of concresence the “somehow or other,” that Teilhard leaves unpronounced. Teilhard was a scientist (at least in this book), and left such speculative statements to the metaphysician. Whitehead was compelled to unmask the general character of the energy at play in the world, and at the end of his imaginative leap into speculative cosmology, he discovered not the transcendent ground of some theory of everything, but a more noble and enjoyable way of envisaging actuality.

Why did Whitehead find it so important to avoid the bifurcation of nature in his speculative scheme? Why was he so careful to avoid creating modes of thought that re-inscribe a dissociation between our experience of subject and object, psyche and cosmos? It seems he was simply seeking coherence, since it is only when life is able to “hold together” despite the continual threat of contradiction and extinction that it becomes beautiful and good. Living actuality is not a given, but an achievement won at the cost of alternatives, and maintained at the cost of the robbery of other actualities of their life. In our contemporary context, where an ecological crisis conditions our every move, enacting modes of thought that hold the Living Earth together are becoming of more than just aesthetic or ethical value. The living existence of our species (and many others) depends upon our coming to think the Living Earth in a more durable and resilient way, since in thinking it we live in it, with it, and upon it.

Scientific Materialism and Consumer Capitalism think and produce nature hastily, with little care for its non-human achievements of community (i.e., its ethical activity). These modes of thought exaggerate a basic truth while forgetting an essential exception: they engage nature as valueless and determined, except for the human, who is free to know and control its processes. Such materialist modes must become imaginative enough to conceive of freedom and matter, the human knower and the thing known, in a more coherent way.

Whitehead provides a template for such a new mode of thought, but its actualization requires a miracle. The propositional feelings buried in his written words must be resurrected and brought into novel contrast with the spirit of the present. His logos must be given life.

4 Replies to “Soul and World: Fragments written upon reading “Thinking with Whitehead” by Isabelle Stengers”

  1. Besides the Schelling essay I wrote some time back (which I’m hoping you’re still finding useful), the full text of my “Man and Nature” essay is larger than the most controversial part of it, part 4. Since you would be more interested in the philosophical framework of the essay, the longer version is probably better:

    “Man and Nature”

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