Panpsychism and Speculative Realism: Reviewing Shaviro’s “The Universe of Things”


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“The progress of philosophy does not primarily involve reactions of agreement or dissent. It essentially consists in the enlargement of thought, whereby contradictions and agreements are transformed into partial aspects of wider points of view.” -Alfred North Whitehead, September 10, 1941

It is in this spirit that I believe Shaviro wrote The Universe of Things. Although his name is not in the title, Whitehead is the protagonist of Shaviro’s short book, subtitled On Speculative Realism. Shaviro successfully develops Whitehead’s scheme as an alternative to the other strands of speculative realism. He starkly contrasts Whitehead’s scheme with the eliminativism of Brassier and the mathematism of Meillassoux, but devotes by far the most attention to the differences between Whitehead’s Organism-Oriented Ontology and Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology. I learned a lot from these comparisons. One thing I’d really liked to have seen is a more sustained treatment of Iain Hamilton Grant’s Schellingian powers ontology. Whitehead and Schelling make for an intensely interesting comparison. Of the 4 original speculative realists, Grant’s vitalist variety of SR always struck me as the most intuitively compelling. Harman’s object ontology hit me as more of an intellectual shock that I’m not entirely sure I’ve recovered from yet.

Despite the lack of engagement with Grant/Schelling, what Shaviro convincingly illustrates is the way Whitehead’s philosophy of organism anticipates the most important of speculative realism’s main concerns, in particular SR’s desire to overcome “the anthropocentrism that has for so long been a key assumption of modern Western rationality” (1). Call it “correlationism” or “the philosophy of access”: the assumption of almost all philosophy since at least Kant is that the only reality of any consequence is human reality, reality as it appears or submits to human theories and practices.

“The taste for cosmological vastness,” writes Harman in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “reaches us from Buddhist scripture and the roar of the sea and the probes launched toward Saturn, but the philosophy of human access persuades us to forget these astonishing spaces, or to leave them to other university departments” (255).

In order to overcome the pervasive anthropocentrism of so much modern philosophy, Shaviro argues we would be better served by erring on the side of anthropomorphism. I agree, but with important qualifications. Even if human experience is a special instance of a more general feature of nature, we still need to perform a kind of alchemical distillation of human consciousness in order to determine exactly what is special and what is generic about our experience. What is unique to our way of aesthetically translating the universe, and what is universal? In Whitehead’s estimation, when we perform such a distillation, it quickly becomes clear that not all experience is conscious. There are all sorts of non-conscious experiences causally contributing to our conscious personalities. There are also all sorts of non-conscious experiences occurring beyond and below the reach of human access. As Harman reminds us, “the life of gravel and sandpaper is every bit as troubled by inner ambiguities as human existence ever was” (GM, 257). Both Whitehead and Harman agree on the need to decenter the human. Further, they both agree philosophy must overcome what cultural historian Richard Tarnas describes as “the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind,” namely, “the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self’s own will to power” (Cosmos and Psyche, 41). 

Harman actually denies that he is a panpsychist, since he doesn’t want to install the special features of human cognition into the heart of being. If this is what panpsychism entails, then Whitehead is not a panpsychist, either. David Ray Griffin coined the term “panexperientialism” to better describe Whitehead’s ontology. Harman prefers to refer to OOO as a “panallurist” ontology, building on his aestheticization of causality. “Even if the world were filled with nothing but dust,” writes Harman, “allure would already be present, and the whole of ontology would already be operative” (GM, 244). Just as Whitehead reminds us that, while all consciousness is experiential, not all experience is conscious, Harman states that “all consciousness is allure, but not all allure is conscious” (GM, 245). Whether we call their approaches panpsychist, panexperientialist, or panallurist, it’s obvious that both Whitehead and Harman reject the modern dichotomy between the “conscious images” of minds and the “causal impacts” of matter. According to Harman, images live in the gaps between everything, even particles of supposedly inanimate dust. He enigmatically suggests that we are most closely bound up with the rhythms of being when we are overcome by laughter or worship (243). While I’m not entirely sure what he means, I’m hoping this statement primes my readers to more open-mindedly consider the panexperientialist notion that perhaps the human body can be understood as a sort of monotheistic religion, the god-serving ritual of molecules and cells.

All the components of our body dance in harmony according to the ancient rhythms inherited from their evolutionary forebears, working together to construct and reconstruct the hierarchical structure of our organism. As individual components they have no idea they are participating in creating and maintaining the body of a hidden and unspeakable god. If the cells and molecules of our bodies are so clearly alive, what are we to make of the wider so-called “inanimate” or “inorganic” world?

“The living organ of experience is the living body as a whole. Every instability of any part of it–be it chemical, physical, or molar–imposes an activity of readjustment throughout the whole organism. In the course of such physical activities, human experience has its origin. The plausible interpretation of such experience is that it is one of the natural activities involved in the functioning of such a high-grade organism. The actualities of nature…must be explanatory of this fact…Such experience seems to be more particularly related to the activities of the brain. But…we cannot determine with what molecules the brain begins and the rest of the body ends. Further, we cannot tell with what molecules the body ends and the external world begins. The truth is that the brain is continuous with the body, and the body is continuous with the rest of the natural world. Human experience is an act of self-origination including the whole of nature, limited to the perspective of a focal region, located within the body, but not necessarily persisting in any fixed coordination with a definite part of the brain” (Adventures of Ideas, 289-290).

Panpsychism (or whatever we want to call it), though it has a long pedigree as “a recurring underground motif” in Western philosophy (from the presocratics, to Spinoza and Leibniz, to William James and Whitehead), is only just recently beginning to be taken seriously again. Still, the notion of inherently experiential material strikes many as absurd. Colin McGinn, for example, refers to the idea as “a complete myth, a comforting piece of utter balderdash.” He goes on to ask “isn’t there something vaguely hippyish, i.e., stoned, about the doctrine?” (Consciousness and Its Place in Nature, 93). On Shaviro’s reading, it is not panpsychism that provides us with comfort in the face of an otherwise meaningless and inhuman universe; on the contrary, the comforting modern myth is the anthropocentric idea that all intelligence and purposefulness is safely locked up within the human skull. It gives us a false sense of control over our environments, as though the nonhuman world were just a bunch of dead objects whose blind motion strictly obeys the clear and distinct laws discovered by science. The panpsychist re-enchantment of nature is actually a rather terrifying prospect from the perspective of our hyper-alienated, still all too Cartesian late modern consciousness.

I’ll continue with my review of Shaviro’s book in subsequent posts. Still to be discussed is Shaviro’s rebuttal of Harman’s claim that Whitehead is a relational reductionist. I’ve been arguing against Harman’s reading for years (see here). For many Whiteheadians, the whole issue was settled back in 2010 at the “Metaphysics and Things” conference in Claremont, CA (click here for Shaviro’s brief review and links to other accounts of he and Harman’s exchange at the conference). I’m not sure if Harman remembers, but a few of us from CIIS ran into him at a cafe across the street from the lecture hall just prior to Isabelle Stengers’ keynote. I’d already heard of his OOO by that point, but didn’t catch his name at the time and so only realized it was him after the fact. In any event, despite being gently but consistently scolded by Shaviro, Roland Faber, and other Whiteheadians for his misreading, Harman continues to caricature Whitehead’s process atomism in what I can only believe is an exaggerated attempt to differentiate and so win attention for his own philosophical scheme. There’s nothing abnormal about this tactic in the history of philosophy (I often say, only half facetiously, that the history of philosophy is a long series of caricatures). And the good spiritedness of this particular debate makes it a really great opportunity to flesh out the implications of Whitehead’s ontology. It provides a great example of how disagreement can be conceptually fruitful without degenerating into polemic. As I hope to show in a subsequent post, Harman’s key concept of “withdrawal” provides important insights about causal relation. But I also think Whitehead’s account of an occasion’s momentary privacy gives us what Harman wants without having to affirm the incoherent notion of “vacuous actualities.” Stay tuned…

2 Comments Add yours

  1. mary9macrina says:

    In light of the potential “stoned” aspect of the panpsychist experience, I don’t even see all polemic as a “degeneration”; the radical insistence for disintegration of fixed perception during partaking the psychedelic eucharist can be the polemic of radical awe. There’s no particular guarantee that all discourse has to be comforting and gentle in its persuasive character. Even Whitehead’s “lure” concept can be anthropocentric in its feel that it must be palatable and non-intrusive upon human sensibilities. I smile to think of the demand that experiences of radical panpsychism be tame and full of decorum. God forbid we be truly moved , rattled and shaken. An enchanted cosmos better mind its manners! And as such, I tend to see the emphasis on the insistence of a dis- or de-enchanted universe as a false reification of a deficient rational view as described by Gebser,… that is, the de-enchanted view of the universe is itself a product of operations within the deficient rational,….. however, operating through the perceptual veils of a stale habitual anthropocentrism in no way dis-enchants the cosmos. Cosmos has a way of responding by asserting its independence from human mental stuckness . . Between breaking free of the merely human ….and the becoming cosmic are a vast array of experiences that qualify as capable of disrupting the myths constructed around the deadness of matter and the voidness of other lifeforms., all of which the never-been-unenchanted cosmos is more than willing to supply.

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