Adam Robbert on the ecology of ideas…
Since my post a few days ago (“The ‘innocence of becoming’: Nietzsche, Whitehead, and Nihilism as a Pathological Transitional Stage between Monism and Pluralism“), I’ve re-read chapter 4 of William Connolly’s The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (2013). Here is his summation of that chapter, which compared Nietzsche’s and Whitehead’s process philosophies:
“It must be emphasized that the positive spirituality Whitehead pours into his speculative philosophy is at least as affirmative as that of Nietzsche, and more consistently so. These two process philosophers are thus worthy protagonists from whom others can draw sustenance: they advance contending, overlapping cosmic creeds that speak to today; they address the spiritual quality through which a creed is lived in relation to others; and they throw up for grabs a set of established, complementary assumptions during a period when many constituencies both feel and suppress doubts about those assurances. Each, at his best, argues with the carriers of other creeds while inviting their proponents to fold positive spiritualities into their creedal relations…Nietzsche and Whitehead articulate the planetary and cosmic dimensions in diverse concepts and affective tones that also touch, though neither may have anticipated how densely planetary processes with differing degrees of self-organizing power are entangled today with local, regional, and global issues. Each expresses, in his inimical way, a spirit of deep attachment to a cosmos of dispersed, conditioned processes; each, if he were to confront the contemporary condition, might appreciate the potential contribution an ethos of existential gratitude forged across territories, constituencies, and existential creeds could make to addressing the fragility of things. Or so I project into the magisterial Whitehead and the agnostic Nietzsche. The task, merely launched here, is to draw selective sustenance from each to think our place in the cosmos, to come to terms with the fragility of things at local, regional, global, and planetary sites, and to fend off the existential resentment that threatens to become severe under late modern conditions” (176-178).
As you can see, Connolly counts Whitehead and Nietzsche as allies in his push for a pluralist ontopolitics. Even so, he levels several potentially devastating critiques. I wanted to focus on his attempt to “qualify” two of Whitehead’s most enigmatic categories: “God” and “eternal objects.” Donald Crosby also critiques these concepts in his own comparison of Nietzsche and Whitehead. Many browsers of Whitehead’s writings praise him for his concepts of “Creativity,” “prehension,” “actual occasion,” and “concrescence,” but want nothing whatsoever to do with what they perceive to be his gratuitous theological constructions, most infamously his dipolar creaturely “God” and his indeterminate and existentially deficient but always and everywhere “ingressing” “eternal objects.” Some scientific materialists have suggested that, if Whitehead’s conceptual scheme cannot survive the removal of its theological components, then it must be buried in the graveyard of history’s bold but mistaken philosophical systems. If Whitehead’s universe is really god-infused, the materialists say, then his speculative adventure in cosmology is for that reason also made irretrievably irrelevant for any modern, scientific, rational investigations of nature.
The problem with this assessment of Whitehead’s scheme, as I understand it, is that the story of modern scientific rationality and its technological mastery over matter has itself already been made irretrievably irrelevant by the planetary scale of the ecological crisis it helped to bring about. Nature is not at all like what the moderns thought she was. Her mechanical “laws” turn out to be more like organic tendencies–tendencies whose stability we, as living earthlings, are beginning to have the power (conscious or otherwise) to alter at genetic and geological scales. The supposedly secularized concept of Nature invented by Descartes, Spinoza, Newton, and Galileo proved to be utterly unprepared for the thermodynamic, electromagnetic, quantum, relativistic, and complexity revolutions of 19th and 20th century science. Nature can no longer be depoliticized, denuded of all subjective quality, moral and aesthetic value, and creative potency. Nature is more like a goddess than a machine.
Whitehead’s theology cannot be separated from his ontology. Or at the very least, Whitehead begs us to take seriously his philosophical commitment to avoiding granting God any unique magical powers not native to every other entity in the universe. God is not a separate type of entity, but a conditioned creature like every other actual entity. But at the same time, Whitehead insist on the necessity of God’s “unconditioned conceptual valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects” in order to secure the possibility of the ingression of relevant novelty into the experience of finite actual occasions:
“Apart from God, eternal objects unrealized in the actual world would be relatively non-existent for the concrescence in question. For effective relevance requires agency of comparison, and agency of comparison belongs exclusively to actual occasions” (Process and Reality, 31).
God’s primordial nature may in certain of Whitehead’s expressions seem “eternally fixed,” as Crosby complains (68). But when read in imaginative conjunction with what Whitehead has to say about God’s consequent nature, with the way God is itself conditioned by the creative advance of the actual universe, this fixity quickly dissolves into something that looks a lot like Nietzsche’s universe of “multiple interacting force fields ungoverned by an overriding center” (as described by Connolly in TFT, 168). Whitehead’s own variety of perspectival panexperientialism is more Hesiodian than Connolly acknowledges when he contrasts Nietzsche’s strong attraction to “the contending gods of Hesiod” with the magisterial Whitehead’s supposed preference for the settled order of eternal unity. “In Greek thought, either poetic or philosophic,” Whitehead writes, “the separation between physis and divinity had not that absolute character which it has for us who have inherited the Semitic Jehovah” (PR, 94). Whitehead praises Plato’s proto-evolutionary cosmological insight into what the ancient Greeks referred to as “subordinate deities who are the animating principles for [certain] departments of nature” (PR, 94). Whitehead’s scheme follows the Timaeus in describing
“the creation of the world [as] the incoming of a type of order establishing a cosmic epoch. It is not the beginning of matter of fact, but the incoming of a certain type of social order” (PR, 96).
The order of the universe is historically emergent and socially embedded, not an ex nihilo emanation out of the Eternal One. It is “incoming,” but not from somewhere else, some distant Eternal Realm separate from and prior to the creative advance of the actual universe. Eternal objects on their own (as pure potentials) are “deficient in actuality,” such that it is only ever as a result of the decision of some actual occasion that they have an effect on anything. New order is “incoming” only relative to the cosmic epoch which preceded it.
Connolly worries that Whitehead’s concept of God as a “[conveyer] of new levels of complexity into the future” ignores the fragility of human civilization and indeed the inescapable eventual demise of life on earth (TFT, 175). It is not clear to me that Whitehead’s categorical scheme requires the preservation of the complexity aroused by any particular cosmic epoch’s primordially evaluated potential. My sense is that each cosmic epoch has its own emergent divinity, or world-soul. Perhaps features of the order of past epochs are inherited by incoming world-souls; perhaps everything is lost in the apocalyptic transition form one epoch to the next. Whitehead’s scheme leaves this particular question open, it seems to me. Catastrophic dissociation is just as possible as enduring organization in Whitehead’s processual pluriverse.
Connolly is also concerned that Whitehead’s “doctrine of eternal objects reduces the scope of possible creativity in the world” (163). Terrence Deacon expressed a similar concern to me. On my reading, Whitehead introduces the concept of eternal objects specifically to make the experience of relevant novelty possible. Far from reducing the ingression of novelty into the universe, an actual occasion’s experience of pure potentiality provides the necessary condition for such creative ingression. If prehensions were simply physical (that is, related to past actual occasions), nothing new could ever happen. Nature would remain utterly repetitive. Further, without granting the reality of potenials alongside actualities, there would be no way to distinguish the future from the past. Time would be reversible and homogeneous, not creative. The creative evolution of the universe is made possible by the creative decisions of actual occasions who can conceptually prehend the physical past in some more or less significant way as other than it was. If physical prehensions relate to the settled facts of the past, conceptual prehensions relate to the formal possibilities of the future left open by these facts. As Heisenberg expressed it, the question is (as quoted by Connolly, p. 153), how does “a unique actuality evolve from a matrix of coexistent potenia?” Whitehead’s answer is that each actual occasion, via the process of concrescence, makes definite (or concrete) what had been indeterminate (or abstract), adding another fact of realized value to the ongoing evolution of this cosmic epoch.
As Connolly puts it, both Whitehead and Nietzsche call us to “stretch human capacities by artistic and experimental means so as to respond more sensitively to other force fields” (161). Whether or not the aesthetics of their respective process ontologies can finally be made to cohere remains an open question for me. It seems at this point that Nietzsche’s preference for an “eternal return” of the same runs up against the more open-ended creativity enshrined in Whitehead’s scheme: “No thinker thinks twice” (PR, 29).
As I discussed in my first post, Nietzsche is suspicious of the concept of teleology; but Whitehead’s reformed concept of final causation links it to Nietzsche’s own favorite concept: power. For Whitehead, the concept of power entails both efficient and final causation, where its efficient aspect provides the objective “ground of obligation” inherited by new actual occasions, and its final aspect is the “internal principle of unrest” (PR, 29) expressed by the concrescence of each occasion. Actual occasions do not wield power like a subjective capacity, designing their behavior as if from beyond it. Power is not the capacity of a subject, but the capacity resultant in a subject. Whitehead completely abandons “the notion of an actual entity as the unchanging subject of change.” Instead, “an actual entity is at once the subject experiencing and the superject of its experiences” (PR, 29). In this sense, Whitehead’s re-formed teleology is immanent, self-organizing, and self-implicating. It retains nothing of old concept of teleology related to transcendently imposed design, where the Creator stands clearly and distinctly apart from its creation.
It is remarkable how similar Nietzsche’s musings on perspectivism are to Whitehead’s process-relational ontology. I was reminded of their congruence while re-reading excerpts from Nietzsche’s The Will to Power (published in Mark Taylor’s Deconstruction in Context). Of course, one might read Whitehead’s somewhat Platonic cosmological scheme (which includes reformed conceptions of teleology, god, eternal objects, and so on) as directly opposed to Nietzsche’s purely immanent approach. In this post, I want to suggest that Whitehead’s process-relational cosmology at least indicates one way forward toward a post-nihilistic theory and practice.
Nihilism, according to Nietzsche, is a “psychological state” characterized by the feeling of “being ashamed in front of oneself, as if one had deceived oneself all too long” with the belief that the event we call “the universe” is about something, that “something is to be achieved through the process–and now one realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing” (DiC, 192). Nietzsche’s first target in dismissing the supposed aim or telos of cosmic evolution seems to be the notion, long cherished by philosophers and theologians alike, that humanity is at the center of things and/or is the end toward which all things move. His second target is the human desire to achieve a “unity” of knowledge based in some supposed ontological monism: “underneath all becoming there is no grand unity” (DiC, 193). Finally, his third target is the metaphysical belief in a “true world.” Instead of the ancient philosophical dichotomy between the one true reality of Being and the many false appearances of becoming, Nietzsche desires to affirm “the reality of becoming as the only reality.” Unfortunately, despite his desire to affirm such an aimless, pluralistic, processual reality, Nietzsche finds himself stuck in a sort of nihilistic stasis: “one…cannot endure this world though one does not want to deny it.”
“Nihilism represents a pathological transitional stage,” writes Nietzsche. “What is pathological,” he continues, “is the tremendous generalization, the inference that there is no meaning at all” (DiC, 194). In other words, once the three traditional categories of Reason–Aim, Unity, Being–have been shown not to apply to the actual universe, but only to a fictitious universe invented by our psychological need for existential security, there remains the constructive task of re-evaluating the universe according to more adequate categories. “Adequate” not according to the standards of abstract Reason, which serve only to construe reality as though human consciousness was “the meaning and measure of the value of things,” but rather categories adequate to the standard of life itself, namely, the will to power.
“In order for a particular species to maintain itself and increase its power, its conception of reality must comprehend enough of the calculable and constant for it to base a scheme of behavior on it. The utility of preservation–not some abstract-theoretical need not to be deceived–stands as the motive behind the development of the organs of knowledge–they develop in such a way that their observations suffice for our preservation. In other words: the measure of the desire for knowledge depends upon the measure to which the will to power grows in a species: a species grasps a certain amount of reality in order to become master of it, in order to press it into service” (197-198).
Nietzsche’s interpretation of the human intellect is nearly identical to the evolutionary epistemology articulated by Bergson and James, perhaps Whitehead’s two most important philosophical influences. This view of the intellect as a pragmatic survival mechanism rather than a revealer of objective truth demands a total re-imagination of philosophy’s methods and goals. For Bergson, it meant abandoning intellect (at least for the purposes of philosophy) and developing a new organ of perception: philosophical intuition. For James, it meant construing philosophy “as more a matter of passionate vision than of logic…logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards” (A Pluralistic Universe, 710). For Whitehead, it meant analogizing philosophy to “imaginative art” (Modes of Thought, 117). Whitehead continues, in a rather Nietzschean vein: “The degeneracy of mankind is distinguished from its uprise by the dominance of chill abstractions, divorced from aesthetic content” (MoT, 123). Philosophy’s role, then, as a critic of abstractions, is to prevent “the abstractive experience” achieved by rational consciousness from “destroying its own massive basis for survival.” In Nietzsche’s terms, a post-nihilist philosophy must continually remind us that the concept “leaf” is but a passing puff of air compared with “the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth,” that is, the encounter with actual leaves, no two of which are ever the same (On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, excerpted in DiC, 218-219).
For Nietzsche, as for Whitehead, the classical concept of “Substance,” that most abstract and stable of eternal ideas, is to be replaced with the processual concept of Power. “The essence of power,” writes Whitehead,
“is the drive towards aesthetic worth for its own sake…It constitutes the drive of the universe. It is efficient cause, maintaining its power of survival. It is final cause, maintaining in the creature its appetition for creation” (MoT, 119).
But wait… Doesn’t this new concept of power sneak teleology back into our conception of the universe? Isn’t this just a regressive slide back into a pre-nihilistic psychology, rather than its overcoming? Here is where Nietzsche’s perspectivism comes into play. While he denies some overarching Meaning underlying all cosmic existence, Nietzsche does not deny meaning outright. Rather, he pluralizes it: the universe “has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings” (DiC, 198). In other words, Whitehead’s rendering of the concept of power as not simply an efficient, but also a final cause, is not the imposition of a Single Destination toward which all creatures are heading. Rather, each and every individual creature is free to create its own meaning: “…every creature different from us senses different qualities and consequently lives in a different world from that in which we live,” writes Nietzsche (DiC, 207). Do not misinterpret this pluralism of perspectives, this ontology of multiple meaning-makers, as the rather banal thesis that there are many perspectives on some underlying reality, material, ideal, or otherwise. This is not the empty sort of pluralism where a single reality is allowed to appear in many guises. “As if a world would still remain over after one deducted the perspectives!” No, this is full blown ontological pluralism:
“Every center of force adopts a perspective on the entire remainder, i.e., its own particular valuation, mode of action, and mode of resistance…There is no other mode of action whatever; and the ‘world’ is only a word for the totality of these actions. Reality consists precisely in this particular action and reaction of every individual part toward the whole … Appearance is an arranged and simplified world, at which our practical instincts have been at work; it is perfectly true of us; that is to say, we live, we are able to live in it: proof of its truth for us–the world, apart from our condition of living in it, the world that we have not reduced to our being, our logic and psychological prejudices, does not exist as a world ‘in itself’; it is essentially a world of relationships; under certain conditions it has a differing aspect from every point; its being is essentially different from every point; it presses upon every point, every point resists it…” (DiC, 207-208).
Nietzsche could very easily have been describing Whitehead’s ontology here. Of course, there remains the issue of working Whitehead’s conceptions of “God” and “eternal objects” into Nietzsche’s scheme. Can this be coherently accomplished? Whitehead’s God is meant as a secular replacement for the supernaturalist images of the past, a God who suffers with the world rather than a God who creates it from a transcendent beyond. In this sense, I think Whitehead and Nietzsche can in fact be reconciled with one another. I’ll have more to say on this point in subsequent posts… [For part two on Whitehead and Nietzsche’s process pluralisms click here].
Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy: Towards a Physics of the World-Soul/an Ontology of Organism
My dissertation examines the cognitive role of imagination in modern philosophies of nature since Descartes, focusing in particular on the nature philosophies of Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead. I argue that the cognitive organ of etheric imagination grants the nature philosopher epistemic access to a process ontology of organism. Once this etheric organ of perception has flowered, the physical world of isolated objects in empty space apprehended by the reflective intellect is recognized to be merely the outer layer or final fruit (Natura naturata) of a living process that creatively forms itself again and again from the inside out (Natura naturans).
I will follow Deleuze in construing the work of philosophical writing as part detective novel, part science fiction (Difference and Repetition, xx):
“By detective novel we mean that concepts, with their zones of presence should intervene to resolve local situations. They themselves change along with the problems. They have spheres of influence where…they operate in relation to ‘dramas’ and by means of a certain ‘cruelty.’ They must have a coherence among themselves, but that coherence must not come form themselves. They must receive their coherence from elsewhere. This is the secret of empiricism. Empiricism is by no means a reaction against concepts, nor a simple appeal to lived experience. On the contrary, it undertakes the most insane creation of concepts ever seen or heard. Empiricism is a mysticism and a mathematicism of concepts, but precisely one which treats the concept as object of an encounter…Only an empiricist could say concepts are indeed things, but things in their free and wild state, beyond ‘anthropological predicates.’”
The detective novel part of my dissertation pursues an empirical encounter with what seems to be the most profoundly mysterious concept to have emerged in the history of philosophy: imagination. Its pro-fundity, or groundlessness, has repeatedly unsettled the major conceptual personas of philosophical history. Though there are notable exceptions (e.g., Schelling, Steiner, Whitehead), modern philosophers have tended to restrain the otherwise unruly force of imagination so as to prevent it from clouding their measured pursuit of clear and distinct truth. My dissertation treats the history of modern philosophy as a crime scene. In effect, modern philosophy since Descartes has committed “imagicide” by severing the erotic arteries assuring the rhythmic circulation between spirit and matter. The philosophical murder of imagination left modern philosophy in an impossible situation: if mind is entirely distinct and separate from nature, soul separate from corpse, I from not-I, etc., how can philosophers pretend to love Wisdom? If no synthesis can be woven between the ideal web of concepts “in here” and our percepts of real things “out there”—if the blood clot preventing the concrescence of thought and sense cannot be dissolved—then there is no love and no Wisdom to be had. Without the subtle mediations of imagination there is only confusion, which takes the form either of an exaggerated idealism (where nature becomes a mere shadow to be sublated) or a mistaken materialism (a materialism in name only that does not recognize itself as an idealistic dualism). These confusions are a result of the bifurcation of nature Whitehead’s adventure in cosmology sought to alleviate between the world of inner experience (“the dream”) and the world of physical theory (“the conjecture”).
I aim to philosophically encounter the force of imagination not by unduly restraining it, but on the contrary, by amplifying its cognitive potentials. I do so by taking methodological and theoretical cues from Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead.
The science fiction part involves an investigation into the ontological significance of the etheric dimension of nature. Framing my investigation are Steiner’s esoteric ether of formative forces, Schelling’s polarized ether of universal organization, and Whitehead’s mathematical ether of creative events. These ether theories are not “scientific” in the standard sense of being rooted in some experimental protocol. Fortunately, making concepts scientifically operational is not the philosopher’s role. And anyway, the ether theories articulated by Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead were not meant to compete with scientific evidence, but to philosophically interpret it. The concept of an etheric dimension of nature is not a hypothesis concerning a supposedly mind-independent reality that might be experimentally falsified; it is, rather, the empirico-transcendental condition for any scientific knowledge of nature at all (a condition of real, not possible experience, following Deleuze [Difference and Repetition, 285]). The major philosophical goal of my research on imagination and the etheric dimension of nature that it reveals is to assemble the evidences of the special sciences into a “likely story” or mythospeculative cosmology supportive of a non-modern ecological civilization.
First, a few orientating quotations from the thinkers I will be boiling together in the alchemical vessel of my dissertation.
“…if we had the choice between empiricism and the all-oppressing necessity of thought of a rationalism which had been driven to the highest point, no free spirit would be able to object to deciding in favor of empiricism. Empiricism itself, then, allows a higher way of looking at things, or can be grasped from a higher perspective than the received, or, at least since Kant, the usual concept grasps it, which expels everything intelligible not only beyond the concepts of the understanding, but originally and first of all beyond all experience. Hence the now usual explanation that empiricism denies everything supernatural, but this is not the case. Because it is empiricism, it does not necessarily for that reason deny the supernatural, neither does it assume the legal and moral laws and the content of religion as something merely contingent, namely in the sense that it reduces everything to mere feelings, which themselves would only be the product of education and habit, as Hume admittedly did, who, by the way, asserted the same thing in relation to the sort of necessity with which we link cause and effect in our thoughts. There is even a higher and a lower concept of empiricism. For if the highest goal, which philosophy can, by general consent even of those who up to now think differently, certainly reach, is precisely to grasp the world as freely produced and created, then philosophy, with regard to the main thing it can achieve, or precisely by reaching its highest goal, would be a science of experience; I do not mean in the formal sense, but I do mean in the material sense, that what is highest for it would itself be something experiential in nature. If up to now, then, that national difference with regard to philosophy really exists, then this rift initially only shows that the philosophy in which humankind could recognize itself, the truly universal philosophy, does not yet exist. The truly universal philosophy cannot possibly be the property of a single nation, and as long as any philosophy does not go beyond the borders of a single people one can be safe in assuming that it is not yet the true philosophy, even if it is perhaps on the way to it…It would be wrong, really wrong, then, to want to call back those other [French and English speaking] nations from the doctrine of empiricism which they pursue to such great advantage in other areas; for them this would indeed be a retrograde movement. It is not up to them, it is up to us Germans, who, since the existence of Naturphilosophie, have emerged from the sad alternative of a metaphysics which floats in the air, lacking any foundation (that they rightly make fun of) and an infertile, arid psychology–it is up to us, I say, to develop the system, which we may hope to grasp and to reach, the positive system whose principle, precisely because of its absolute positivity cannot itself be knowable a priori any more, but only a posteriori, to the point where it will flow together with that empiricism which has been expanded and purified to the same extent” -F. W. J. Schelling, last lines from On the History of Modern Philosophy (~1833).
“Our bodily experience is the basis of existence. How is it to be characterized? In the first place, it is not primarily an experience of sense data, in the clear and distinct sense of that term. The internal functioning of a healthy body provides singularly few sense data, primarily associated with itself. When such sense data appear, we send fro a doctor. They are mostly aches and pains. And yet our feeling of bodily unity is a primary experience. It is an experience so habitual and so completely a matter of course that we rarely mention it. No one ever says, Here am I, and I have brought my body with me. In what does this intimacy of relationship consist? The body is the basis of our emotional and purposive experience. It determines the way in which we react to the clear sensa. It determines the fact that we enjoy sensa. But the eye strain in sight is not the eye sight. We see with our eyes; we do not see our eyes. The body is that portion of nature with which each moment of human experience cooperates. There is an inflow and outflow of factors between the bodily actuality and the human experience, so that each shares in the existence of the other. The human body provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature…So long as nature was conceived in terms of the passive, instantaneous existence of bits of matter, according to Newton or Democritus, a difficulty arises. For there is an essential distinction between matter at an instant and the agitations of experience. But this conception of matter has not been swept away. Analogous notions of activity, and of forms of transition, apply to human experience and to the human body. Thus bodily activities and forms of experience can be construed in terms of each other. Also the body is part of nature. Thus we finally construe the world in terms of the type of activities disclosed in our intimate experience. This conclusion must not be distorted. The fallacious notion of passive matter has by a reaction led to a distorted account of human experience. Human nature has been described in terms of its vivid accidents, and not its existential essence. The description of its essence must apply to the unborn child, to the baby in its cradle, to the state of sleep, and to that vast background of feeling hardly touched by consciousness. Clear, conscious discrimination is an accident of human existence. It makes us human. But it does not make us exist. It is of the essence of our humanity. But it is an accident of our existence. What is our primary experience which lies below and gives its meaning to our conscious analysis of qualitative detail? In our analysis of detail we are presupposing a background which supplies a meaning. These vivid accidents accentuate something which is already there. We require to describe that factor in our experience which, being a matter of course, does not enter prominently into conversation. There is no need to mention it. For this reason language is very ineffective for the exposition of metaphysics. Our enjoyment of actuality is a realization of worth, good or bad. It is a value experience. Its basic expression is–Have a care, here is something that matters! Yes–that is the best phrase–the primary glimmering of consciousness reveals, something that matters. This experience provokes attention, dim and, all but, subconscious. Attention yields a three-fold character in the “Something that matters.” “Totality,” “Externality,” and “Internality” are the primary characterizations of “that which matters.” They are not to be conceived as clear, analytic concepts. Experience awakes with these dim presuppositions to guide its rising clarity of detailed analysis. They are presuppositions in the sense of expressing the sort of obviousness which experience exhibits. There is the totality of actual fact; there is the externality of many facts; there is the internality of this experiencing which lies within the totality. These three divisions are on a level. No one in any sense precedes the other. There is the whole fact containing within itself my fact and the other facts. Also the dim meaning of fact–or actuality–is intrinsic importance for itself, for the others, and for the whole. Of course all our terms of speech are too special, and refer too explicitly to higher stages of experience. For this reason, philosophy is analogous to imaginative art. It suggests meaning beyond its mere statements. On the whole, elaborate phrases enshrine the more primitive meanings.” -A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, p. 114-118
“What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream.
Another way of phrasing this theory which I am arguing against is to bifurcate nature into two divisions,
namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness. The nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature. The meeting point of these two natures is the mind, the causal nature being influent and the apparent nature being effluent.” -A. N. Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, ch. 2.
“Our earth today has a quite particular configuration and form. Let us go back in the evolution of the earth. It once had a completely different form. Let us immerse ourselves…still further back: we come there to ever higher temperatures, in which metals were able to flow all around as water runs along today. All the metals have become these veins in the earth because they first flowed along in streams. Just as lead is hard today and quicksilver is fluid, so lead was at one time fluid and quicksilver will one day become a solid metal. Thus the earth is changeable, but man has always participated in these various evolutions. In the ages of which we have spoken, physical man as yet was not in existence. But the etheric body and astral body were there; they could live in the higher temperatures of that time. The sheaths gradually began to form with the cooling process, enveloping man. While something new was always being formed in man during the earth’s evolution, something correspondingly new had also been formed outside in nature. The rudiments of the human eye had first arisen in the Sun evolution. First the etheric body formed itself and this again formed the human physical eye. As a piece of ice freezes out of water, so are the physical organs formed out of the finer etheric body. The physical organs were formed within man while outside the earth became solid. In every age the formation of a human organ took place parallel with the formation of a particular configuration outside in nature…One only understands man when one can recognize the connections between the human being and the forces of nature. ” -Rudolf Steiner
My aim in this dissertation is to draw indications from each of these thinkers in an attempt to articulate an alternative ontology unhampered by the bifurcation of nature plaguing modern thought. Modernity need not be rejected; rather, an alternative form of modernity is possible, rooted not in Kantian skepticism or Hegelian idealism, but in Schellingian naturalism and Whiteheadian radical empiricism. Drawing on Steiner and the Western esoteric tradition, I will argue that the Kantian limits placed on human understanding and experience can be overcome through the cultivation of new organs of perception. The ontological insights of a process-relational ontology of organism are achieved through the higher speculative empiricism of the etheric imagination. Etheric imagination grants the process philosopher perceptual access to the formative forces unfolding organized beings from the inside out. Etheric imagination is in this sense not in the business of fantasy or make believe, but is an organ of genuine conceptual and perceptual import in tune with natural processes that unfold below the level of ordinary rational waking consciousness. The mechanical ontology underlying scientific materialism stems from misplaced concreteness, whereby abstract models of physical activity are made to fill in for the experienced reality of said activity. Such a scientific materialism, though it claims to be empirical, is really a confused idealism, in that it dismisses experiential reality as a mere dream, replacing it with an explanation based on the conjectured mechanical processes lying beneath experience that somehow cause it.
Along with Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead, I plan to draw on several other thinkers, including Gilles Deleuze , John Sallis, Bruno Latour, and Michael Marder.
Rough breakdown of dissertation
1. Historical Outline on emergence of bifurcated image of nature in modern philosophy beginning with Descartes (through Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Locke, Kant, Fichte, Hegel). Argue for alternative modernity building on Bruno, Cusa, and other esoteric thinkers discussed by Steiner in Mystics After Modernism.
2. Epistemology of etheric imagination as an esoteric organ of perception. Build on phenomenology, enactivism, and participatory theory as epistemic first steps toward an ecological ontology, or ontology of organism.
3. Ontology of organism reveals the plant-like (or etheric) texture of experiential reality. Build on Marder’s vegetal metaphysics, Whitehead’s panexperientialism, and Sallis’ elemental phenomenology of earth and sky.
4. Cosmological significance of etheric forces underlying physical phenomena. Unpack Schelling’s, Steiner’s, and Whitehead’s ether theories.
I was wondering how long the cease fire would last… The pluralism wars flared up again this afternoon over on FaceBook (this link may not work for everyone). Misunderstandings abound, or so it seems to me. My position–which is greatly indebted to thinkers like James and Whitehead, and more recently, Bruno Latour–is that of ontological pluralism. What is finally real in such an ontology has nothing to do with a mind-independent objective nature; rather, what is real are the value-experiences of a multiscaled and creatively evolving ecology of organisms.
Ontological pluralism is not equivalent to the rather banal thesis that human individuals and collectives have different world views. Of course they do. Call this “world view pluralism” or “multiculturalism.” Many of us don’t like it, but it doesn’t matter: it’s still a plain fact about the sociopolitical environs modern people inhabit. The idea here is that human subjectivity provides for a whole multitude of cultural, psychological, and/or symbolic ways of relating to the world. The Modern constitution has it that each way of relating to reality should be tolerated, even respected, but on the other hand we are also all obliged to agree that there is finally just one pre-existent true reality out there somewhere. This is the incoherence of Modernity’s bifurcation of nature. Depending on whether we’re dealing with a theistic or scientistic fundamentalist, this “one true reality” could be a natural world made of matter that Science/Reason is the only objective, culture-free way of accessing, or a supernatural world made of spirit that Religion/Revelation is the only objective, culture-free way of accessing. This all too Modern settlement is rooted in the bifurcation of nature that Whitehead spent the last 25 years of his life protesting against:
What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream. –The Concept of Nature, p. 31
Scientific materialism, in other words, has come to oppose our subjective experience of nature (the dream) to an abstract model of nature theorized to be the objective cause of that experience (the conjecture). Latour recently delivered a lecture to an audience of anthropologists that continued Whitehead’s protestation against bifurcation: “What Is the Recommended Dose of Ontological Pluralism for a Safe Anthropological Diplomacy?” It is worth a listen…
Latour and Whitehead both protest against scientific materialism, but they don’t do so as beautiful souls trying to defend the subjective meanings of consciousness from reduction to the materiality of the nature known to science. As Latour makes clear in the lecture above, his project is an attempt to account for the variety of materials known to the sciences more adequately. Similarly, Whitehead was driven into metaphysics precisely because of his deep appreciation for and desire to defend the scientific process. He was as shocked as everyone else who lived through the demolition of classical physics in the early part of the 20th century. He realized that a quantum, relativistic physics, to continue being rational and offering elucidating descriptions of reality, was going to need new metaphysical justification. His process-relational ontology (aka, ontology of organism) takes materiality very seriously, but it no longer considers “matter” to be the objective half of a bifurcated universe. Rather, enduring materials are understood to be always already hybrid subject-objects. Everything physical is understood to be mixed up with everything conceptual and affective. The universe is awash in flows of feeling, flows composed not just of actualized histories and present appreciations, but of anticipated future trajectories. Energy carries physical as well as emotional force.
All that said, what, then, is ontological pluralism? Unlike the banal form of pluralist multiculturalism that everyone already accepts, ontological pluralism is the more radical thesis that no unified underlying material reality exists that might referee the plurality of organismic (human and nonhuman) value-experiences that contest, cooperate, or metamorphose with one another in order to secure their continued existence. The universe is an evolving ecosystem of organisms. It is eros and ares all the way down, equal parts symbiogenic orgy and struggle for existence from top to bottom. Whitehead (Science and the Modern World) offers a concrete example of how this plays out in the physical world:
“Thus just as the members of the same species mutually favor each other, so do members of associated species. We ﬁnd the rudimentary fact of association in the existence of the two species, electrons and hydrogen nuclei. The simplicity of the dual association, and the apparent absence of competition from other antagonistic species accounts for the massive endurance which we ﬁnd among them.”
In the image of the cosmos constructed by the philosophy of organism, evolution comes to refer not only to the process of biological speciation in the earthly mesocosm, but also to wider micro- and macrocosmic ecologies of individualizing energetic activity. Evolution, in its most general outlines, is a theory relevant to the entire scope of cosmic history.
The sciences are generally quite good at producing objectivity, but they do so by forging robust alliances with a multitude of still evolving agencies, not by laying bare the supposed material substratum of all things. As a result, their knowledges and their truths, are always in-the-making (just as the cosmic ecology itself is always in-the-making). Science is a process of inquiry, not a storehouse of produced knowledge.
Latour’s ontological diplomacy is an effort to avoid marshaling “Scientific Facts” as though they might bring a final end to all contestation. Such facts will remain as important as ever even in a non-modern ecological epoch. They deserve to be defended. But the question is, just how is the scientific process best defended from its relativist critics? By claiming that it somehow transcends culture, politics, society, practice, embodiment, subjectivity, etc., and speaks unambiguously on behalf of an objective and pre-existent “Nature”? No, I don’t think this does the reality of the often anarchic and surprising scientific process justice. Latour shows how if such a defense of science via purification were successful, it would only succeed in rendering science entirely unequipped to produce any of the knowledge we’ve come to expect of it.
I’m no relativist, though I am a relationalist. We have plenty of tools to determine which facts are more secure and which more fragile. The clearest evidence we can produce of a well-constructed fact is to trace the network of relationships it has been able to forge between the agencies constituting it. The more tightly and widely networked, the more serious we ought to take it as a fact. So for example, when it comes to the issue of climate change, I’m way more inclined to trust the worldwide scientific community of climatologists–with their well-funded labs, peer-reviewed journals, satellites, thermometers, weather balloons, etc.–than I am a PR rep from the oil industry or the Heritage Foundation. Unfortunately, the PR industry has its own way of forging networks that work tirelessly to undermine the public’s trust in the scientific process. Here, we can and should distinguish between the political and the scientific mode of existence: the Heritage Foundation thinks it is doing climatology, but really it is doing politics. Its networks are not productive of experts, but rather of ideologues. Not that there is anything wrong with politics! The point is just that a more diplomatic effort to sort out these ontological confusions might help us do politics and science more effectively amid the plurality of fragile things composing this open-ended universe.
Ontological pluralism, then, is the thesis that reality is multiple and open-ended (not just that humans have a multitude of world views). It’s not just that our scientific knowledge of the universe is incomplete, its that the universe itself is incomplete. Ontological pluralism does not entail that we ought not to disagree with human collectives whose values differ from our own. We can and must enter into such disagreements! We cannot rely on some transcendent Scientific God’s eye view to settle our scruples for us. Instead, we should weigh the merits of different human values and world views on less otherworldly (ethical and aesthetic) grounds.
For the pluralism of an ontology of organism like that I’ve tried to articulate, the question about whose subjective symbolic or cultural or psychological world view is true and whose is mistaken just doesn’t arise. It is a dumb question once you’ve accepted the conceptual consequences of this path for thinking. If what is finally real are the value-experiences of a multiscaled and creatively evolving ecology of organisms, then the question isn’t “whose view is correct?” (“correct” in the scientific sense of objectively true regarding an external material world), but whose view is more powerful? Being is power, as Whitehead said, following Plato in The Sophist.
Ontological pluralism is not a thesis about the relativity or objectivity of truth. It concerns the truth of relativity–the truth suggested by post-classical physics, systems biology, and post-colonial anthropology–that the universe is full of agencies at all levels (physical, chemical, biological, psychological, …) and is ontologically incomplete/open-ended/processual.
The “…” is important for process-oriented pluralists. It signifies that which cannot finally be signified. Call it “Creativity” if you think that’s less cagey.