Pluralism as the Choreography of Coexistence, with William James and Co.

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the rising tide of social democratic ideals, have changed the type of our imagination, and the older monarchical theism is obsolete or obsolescent.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.


11 Comments Add yours

  1. ashramdiary says:

    You say: “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.” I find the phrase philosophically sound but also somehow moving. Your poetic bent reinforces the cogency of your thought. With current academic science frozen into its objectivist and ultimately solipsistic stance, we need a sense of community with other knowing beings. Pardon me if I keep to the hypothesis that among the others, in common with whom we compose the universe, there must be some who know better than we do.
    And thank you for bringing back James into the mix — how much he owes to Emerson in these paragraphs.

  2. mary9macrina says:

    “human Knowing is composing a common world with others”….I don’t think there is anything more affirming of the intimacy as first principle of world-making/soul-making, than the phenomenon of having another human being growing within one’s own body, which is one’s first choreographic worlding from out of the abyss. A pregnant woman knows that the identity of both the body and the personhood of the child can never be assumed: it is an experience of the primary plurality , which affirms the reality of the matrixial borderspace as presented by Bracha Ettinger as the experience of trans-subjective ground. It is an Urexperience, an Urprocess; no being arrives without this primary and inexorable plurality. I would add that Human knowing is first being a common world with another. There is not so much the need for intimacy,as if one could hope it is provided in response, but intimacy as initial condition, in the process of the formation of a human. This co-poiesis ,according to Ettinger, is a willingness to ware (Gebser) the trans-subjectivity, the Primeplural condition which only later can concepts enhance or destroy, drain and isolate, or re-enchant and in-form. “All subjectivity IS an encounter” says Bracha. We are innately pluralistic; this is the precursive trust, I think. To be willing to feel this. Here is one of her videos; it is easy to imagine that Whitehead would fully comprehend; the first pluriverse is enacted. ….Bracha begins at 54;17 if you wish to skip Butler. so when one wishes another Happy birthday for example, they “are attuned to the traces of the other”, which is the ethical tempering necessary to allow such an ontology.

  3. dmf says:

    “The inner life of things must be substantially akin anyhow to the tenderer parts of man’s nature in any spiritualistic philosophy” the only justification that I can find for this in James is that otherwise he feels like he and his desire for intimacy have been banished to a corner, but if we are to honor the truly alien/different aspects of others (or at least what remains beyond our grasp) shouldn’t we in fact learn to rein in our narcissist needs for identification, maybe put a meditation bench down in the corner where we face the wall?

    1. I suppose the question I’d want to ask is whether intimacy is necessarily narcissistic. It certainly can be; but must it? As I read them, James, Whitehead, and co. are not saying we should learn to trust the pluriverse by projecting our own tenderness onto it. Their panpsychist speculations are far bolder than that. They reject the notion that human values and human vices arise ex nihilo from a mute world. We are as we are, for better and for worse, because the world out of which we came is as it is. Neither of them denied the darker side of things. Whitehead’s teleology is toward beauty, yes, but tragic beauty. James was never as healthy-minded as some of the spiritualists he studied. I wouldn’t deny the benefits of a sort of austere Zen-like indifference to things, especially as a way of overcoming a childish identification with the world. We do need to grow out of that sort of original participation. But alienation is not the end of our development as human beings. There awaits for us a mature form of participation (Barfield’s final participation) that is based not on narcissism but on the free decision to love the world.

      1. dmf says:

        hey matt, how do you know have you overcome narcissism (did Whitehead or others) and if so could you share the means with the rest of us?
        I think TiMorton’s new “101” talk gets at some of this:

  4. DMF, I don’t know, at least not with any certainty. This is where precursive trust comes in.
    I’ll have a listen to Tim’s talk soon. I must listen to the recent Ken Ham v. Bill Nye debate first, though I doubt I’ll be able to make it through the whole thing. It’s important that we find a way of articulating a form of final participation, since this would seem to me to be the only way to move beyond the stupid dichotomy between atheistic materialism and theistic creationism: it would do justice to the evolutionary facts and to our moral and aesthetic intuitions of purpose.

    1. dmf says:

      we could just try to find common projects to work on, no? why do we owe anything to such intuitions if they may well be just one of a slew of cognitive-biases, what makes them a priority/imperative over other interests at play?

      1. DMF, when I refer to these intuitions of purpose, I’m talking about finding a way to justify or account for our ability to have interests at all. If intentionality is just a cognitive bias, a whistle on the neurophysiological train, then the implications are indeed rather disheartening. Work on projects together? The whole idea would become a joke if we accept that we are blind brains. What we owe to such intuitions is nothing less than the justification for civilized life.

      2. dmf says:

        why would it be any different if we came to realize that we dwell poetically and not literally? that knowledge wouldn’t in and of itself take away our intuitions or anything else really unless we somehow gengineered them or otherwise altered our bodies to replace such functions/systems. We don’t act out of justifications they are just one of many kinds of speech-acts usually arising after the fact as a kind of negotiation of future co-operations none of that need go away if we accept that we are a kluged together bundles of habits/biases/bodily-systems, anymore than atheists are suddenly beyond good and evil. Certainly wouldn’t stop us from undertaking public tasks, puzzling…

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