“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Knowledge-Ecology on Alphonso Lingis: Cosmopolitical Selfhood and Ecology

Adam has posted a brilliant reflection on A. Lingis’ words about words. A few highlights:

  • “…words act as objects in the world and the manner by which they act is ecological. Words transform not just the environments which they disclose, but also feedback upon the one who uses them, transforming the subjectivity of the speaker in an ongoing and recursive way.”
  • “Words and worlds are indeed linked as independently existing, interactive actualities. The ontology which describes this relation is object-oriented. The ethics which organize the goals of such an inquiry are cosmopolitical. The way forward is ecological.”
I haven’t read much of Lingis’ work myself, but I’ve already been convinced, by Adam and others, that he is a luminary. He seems to me to have successfully melded art and science into cosmological poetry, in a way not unlike that other telluric poet, David Abram (see Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology). While I agree with Adam that words and worlds are co-enactive actualities, and that the earth and cosmos ought to be the model for our civilization, I am drawn more to the process-relational metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead and the powers ontology of Schelling than I am to the contemporary object-oriented ontologies of Bryant or Harman (Tim Morton’s version, which to me seems closer to the Romantic spirit of Schelling and Whitehead, is another story, but again, I haven’t yet been able to delve into his writing). I would seek a metaphysics that is no more object-oriented than subject-oriented. I would seek a metaphysics oriented toward the Absolute, toward God, that which is both subject and object and neither subject or object; a metaphysics open to Being itself, the IS!, the I AM!, at the root of all things. This is, after all, what language itself would tell us. The Big Other, the thing that every word in our language ultimately signifies if you trace its definition back far enough, is God, YHWH, the I am, which is also the Itself. Language is the creator of subject and object, of self and world, of word and reality.
The cosmopolitical issue, if we can call it that, is one of awakening to the mutual penetration of individual creativity and infinite universality. How am I to live in a city of people, like myself, in a universe so much older and wiser than we are? Not only does this require an ecological re-orientation, so as to bring modern humanity, organized according to the needs of empire, closer to the organization of ancient egalitarian kinship societies; the cosmopolitical task also requires a re-engagement with the deep wisdom of the cosmos, which consists of not just spiritual revelations regarding the eternal divine but scientific discoveries regarding the 14-billion year history of the visible universe.
Indisputably, the way forward is indeed ecological. Logos must be re-minded of and re-embedded in the Bodies within which it was born and into which it will die. Philosophy must become symphilosophy, as Schlegel suggested; our symbols must be made symbionts with the growing earth, seeds for its further flourishing.


5 responses to “Knowledge-Ecology on Alphonso Lingis: Cosmopolitical Selfhood and Ecology”

  1. Adam Robbert Avatar
    Adam Robbert

    I think despite the phrase “object-oriented,” the ontology that Harman and Morton are putting forward (I’m still waiting to read Bryant in print) is precisely one that is predicated on entities that are both subjects and objects; and are beyond both subjects and objects. We shouldn’t trifle too much over the fact that the word “object” has a history of meanings that imply an equally long history of things called “subjects,” and thereby negate the novelty of what is occurring.

    In this sense, I don’t think one needs to go to “the root of all things” or to aim only at the “absolute” or “God” in order for a philosophy to be efficacious in the manner you are proposing. To me it is more compelling to entertain the notion of a God that does not, or perhaps cannot, exert itself above and beyond the undetermined actions of individual entities.

    More on a similar vein — I don’t see cosmopolitics (in Stengers sense) as some kind of welding together of ancient and modern societies. In fact, I see it as the creation of an open, interrogative space that resists the merging of so-call “modern” and “pre-modern” sensibilities by calling into question their bifurcation and categorization to begin with. Here we might turn back and ask: who is this subject which conditions the possibilities for producing such a history?

    The cosmopolitical negotiation is the generation of something more tentative and new, as Stengers writes: “how can we construct this problem in such a way that does not assume we are “angels,” capable of understanding everything, sharing everything, and, therefore, of sorting everything” (Cosmopolitics II, p. 362).

    Cosmopolitics, in Stengers own words, takes us “where angels fear to tread.”

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I guess I am just not sure how novel OOO really is. It certainly is novel in the context of 20th century Continental phenomenology; but the work of German Romantic thinkers like Schelling and Goethe, and English Romantic thinkers like Whitehead, Coleridge, and Emerson has been struggling to, and indeed to some extent is succeeding in, ushering forth a more-than-human cosmological perspective for more than two centuries now. And as I suggested in my talk at the SR/OOO Panel last spring, Plato has always been a thoroughgoing realist (through of course, as OOO also makes clear, reality is not always what it at first appears to be). Whether these thinkers could all be called “object-oriented” is not as clear, but if it is true (and I agree it is) that objects are also subjects in the OOO framework, then perhaps the branding is more appropriate for phenomenological circles due to its shock value than it is to Whiteheadian or Romantic circles for whom the universe is already recognized as strange and beautiful in itself.

      I think that, so long as we are calling it metaphysics, we must say something about the Absolute. Otherwise we’re not doing metaphysics. I agree, though, that God is efficacious only through/as individual entities (in Whitehead’s terms, by acting as an initial aim and a final lure).

      I also agree that cosmopolitics is no mere merger of ancient and modern (I didn’t mean to imply that with what I said above). It does, however, involve us in a reappraisal of the Platonic vision of a city made in the image of the stars. In some sense, “we have never been modern,” in that we have never fully left the mythic domain; so our cosmopolitical task is to bring forth new forms of mythospeculation that bring us down to earth as thoroughly as into the sky.

      1. Adam Robbert Avatar
        Adam Robbert

        I hear you, and can recall you raising the same points RE: OOO’s novelty before. Certainly everything has antecedents, but I think Harman makes a pretty good case in the introduction to The Quadruple Object that a metaphysics of the object is actually extraordinarily rare in Western philosophy when it is not treated from above (overmining) or below (undermining).

        The fact of the matter remains that the work of Plato, Whitehead, and the Romantics alone were not able to mobilize the shifts occurring in Continental and Anglo-American philosophy today (not to mention the huge impact Latour has had on the social sciences and political ecology).

        Again, this is not to say that OOO has no history or predecessors (points that no one would argue) but rather that it has taken a re-visioning of speculative philosophy — in a manner not found in previous thinkers — in order for it to consider adequately things like feminism (Haraway), science studies (Stengers), sociology (Latour), ontology (Harman), ecology (Morton), and class dynamics (Bryant).

        As for the “shock value” of the name, I’m not sure who exactly finds it so shocking. It sounds rather mundane and everyday to me. And I think you’re making too harsh a distinction between Whiteheadians and Phenomenologists — Harman is fully aware of the distinction between cosmology and phenomenology (and how important of a gap it is to bridge), as is his teacher Alphonso Lingis (we could also labor the point by considering the connections between Steven Shaviro, The Whitehead Research Project, and OOO).

        In this sense, I’m not sure you’re doing much more than saying “Yeah, well, I like Romanticism.” Which is fine, but that’s different than launching a thorough-going critique.

        We may never be done mining the riches of Plato and the other greats of philosophy, but simply referring back to their works will surely never be enough. We are obliged to think the present not as it was seen by former historical figures, but as it is lived and breathed by people who are complicated by its manifestation today.

  2. Jason Hills Avatar


    I haven’t been able to read Harman’s book, but given what I have read, I still don’t see the point of over- or under-mining. It seems like an artificial methodological device. What is there to it?

    1. Adam Robbert Avatar
      Adam Robbert


      I can only talk from the perspective of my research, here is a short aside on how the concepts worked out for me:

      I was struck by a very similar problem when exploring the history of biology and ecology. Here, the idea of undermining and overmining extends past philosophy into the sciences as well. We can look at two strands of ecology that following precisely Harman’s critique.

      The first would be evolutionary biology, which historically (the situation has improved quite a bit recently) sought to understand evolution in terms of the functioning of genes inside the organism at the expense of the whole organism itself (not much on the side of the environment either). Its a kind of undermining.

      The second would be ecosystems ecology which takes a systems approach to ecology by studying energy flows, thermodynamic energy gradients, and chemical reactions. This is a holistic science that views everything as a system of energy transactions between organisms and environments. Here again the actual organism gets lost in favor of its energy networks. Its a kind of overmining.

      Its only been recently that a robust ecology that can understand how the evolutionary biology of organisms and the ecosystemic energy flows of the physical environment actually link up and co-evolve. This is a step in the right direction, but still needs further scientific and philosophical work (e.g., I often here that we need a more “holistic” science to solve ecological problems, or that if we can better understand genes peoples problems will disappear– both of which I strongly disagree with).

      Latour and Harman are both forwarding philosophies that are enormously important when considering the activity of scientists doing research, as in the case above. The concrete applicability (and the fact that we can test the validity of both through experiment) is why, for me, I think undermining and overmining are more than artificial methodological devices but important commentaries on some major oversights in the history of science and philosophy.

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