There’s been quite an uproar recently across the philosophy blogosphere regarding the possibility of a pluralist ontology (see Critical Animal’s recap of this cross-blog event). The multitude of angles being offered got me thinking, and eventually sent me back to William James’ A Pluralistic Universe, from which I quote below (lecture 1):

The theological machinery that spoke so livingly to our ancestors, with its finite age of the world, its creation out of nothing, its juridical morality and eschatology, its relish for rewards and punishments, its treatment of God as an external contriver, an ‘intelligent and moral governor,’ sounds as odd to most of us as if it were some outlandish savage religion. The vaster vistas which scientific evolutionism has opened, and the rising tide of social democratic ideals, have changed the type of our imagination, and the older monarchical theism is obsolete or obsolescent. The place of the divine in the world must be more organic and intimate. An external creator and his institutions may still be verbally confessed at Church in formulas that linger by their mere inertia, but the life is out of them, we avoid dwelling on them, the sincere heart of us is elsewhere. I shall leave cynical materialism entirely out of our discussion as not calling for treatment before this present audience, and I shall ignore old-fashioned dualistic theism for the same reason. Our contemporary mind having once for all grasped the possibility of a more intimate Weltanschauung, the only opinions quite worthy of arresting our attention will fall within the general scope of what may roughly be called the pantheistic field of vision, the vision of God as the indwelling divine rather than the external creator, and of human life as part and parcel of that deep reality.

As we have found that spiritualism in general breaks into a more intimate and a less intimate species, so the more intimate species itself breaks into two subspecies, of which the one is more monistic, the other more pluralistic in form. I say in form, for our vocabulary gets unmanageable if we don’t distinguish between form and substance here. The inner life of things must be substantially akin anyhow to the tenderer parts of man’s nature in any spiritualistic philosophy. The word ‘intimacy’ probably covers the essential difference. Materialism holds the foreign in things to be more primary and lasting, it sends us to a lonely corner with our intimacy. The brutal aspects overlap and outwear; refinement has the feebler and more ephemeral hold on reality.

From a pragmatic point of view the difference between living against a background of foreignness and one of intimacy means the difference between a general habit of wariness and one of trust. One might call it a social difference, for after all, the common socius of us all is the great universe whose children we are. If materialistic, we must be suspicious of this socius, cautious, tense, on guard. If spiritualistic, we may give way, embrace, and keep no ultimate fear.

The contrast is rough enough, and can be cut across by all sorts of other divisions, drawn from other points of view than that of foreignness and intimacy. We have so many different businesses with nature that no one of them yields us an all-embracing clasp. The philosophic attempt to define nature so that no one’s business is left out, so that no one lies outside the door saying ‘Where do I come in?’ is sure in advance to fail. The most a philosophy can hope for is not to lock out any interest forever. No matter what doors it closes, it must leave other doors open for the interests which it neglects.

I must admit that a similar Jamesian existential need for intimacy is the common source of my panexperiential ontology, my aesthetic ethics, and my process theology. My enactive epistemology follows from a commitment to the sort of precursive trust that makes it possible to learn from my transactions with reality (=other beings). This means it is possible to be mistaken: to be mistaken is to fail to learn from a transaction with others. To learn from my transactions is to be in right epistemic relation with others. Learning becomes knowing as alliances between vastly different beings are built and maintained. The possibility of learning implies that my knowledge and the others I am trying to get to know remain always incomplete one to the other. I acknowledge from the get go that my knowledge of you could only ever be partial. So long as you do the same, we can continue to grow together, to learn from each other. But as soon as I pretend to know you entirely, in your true reality, learning ceases. I disown you, I steal your otherness and make it mine.

We do not come upon nature (=other organisms) as complete in itself, with a duty to unveil its truth. Nature loves to hide, to wear masks. She plays with us. Getting to know her requires more than just taking her at face value. We’ve got to play along to understand how she works, since who are we but more of her masks? Human knowing is not individual minds accessing a pre-given truth about reality; human knowing is composing a common world with others, most of whom are not human. Our knowing and our being is a “choreography of coexistence,” as Francisco Varela called it.

Check out these other recent posts on realist pluralism: Critical Animal on James, Agent Swarm on Latour, and Struggle Forever on political ontology.


Below is a video I recorded 2.5 years ago while reading Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead. 

I dwell in particular on her reactivation of the Jamesian notion of precursive trust. I also discuss enactivist epistemology, which may help clarify my remarks above.

Here is the essay on Stengers and Whitehead I refer to at the end of the video: Thinking Etho-Ecology with Stengers and Whitehead.