Towards an abstract for my presentation at the International Whitehead Conference, “Re-imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism”

My track at this year’s International Whitehead Conference is titled “Re-imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism” and is situated within the umbrella section called “Alienation from Nature: How It Arose.” Other participants in my track include Elizabeth Allison, Sean Kelly, Richard Tarnas, and Brian Swimme. I hope to have the schedule and abstracts for everyone’s contributions posted by the end of the month.


For my part, I want to articulate an alternative to modernization. Following Bruno Latour, I’ll call it ecologization. The tentative title for my talk is:

Panexperientialist Pluralism or Eliminativist Monism?: Towards the Ecologization of Philosophy

A brief summary of what I’d like to cover:

“A philosophic outlook,” writes Whitehead, “is the very foundation of thought and of life…As we think, we live.” It is the assumption of this paper, and this entire conference, that ideas matter. Philosophy is not merely mental entertainment. On the contrary, it is a matter of life and death. As Whitehead argues, the dominant philosophy of every age “moulds our type of civilization” (MoT, 63). Modern philosophy, largely shaped by Descartes’ understanding of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the free human spirit and an entirely mechanical nature, has been thoroughly critiqued by contemporary environmental philosophers for its ecologically disastrous side-effects. Most serious thinkers no longer consider dualism to be a “living option,” as William James would say. Descartes’ early modern dualism split spirit from matter so thoroughly that it left no room for life. The currently unfolding mass extinction is not at all surprising as the outcome of such a philosophy. To Whitehead’s statement we must add the corollary statement: As we think, we die.

Thanks to Darwin and 160 years of the evolution of Evolutionary theory, it has been made abundantly clear that human beings were not dropped onto this planet from heaven, but instead share a genetic origin with every other species of organism on earth. We also share a destiny: Humans, like many other megafauna, are faced with imminent extinction. We are not, in fact, alienated from Nature. Our fortunes rise and fall with Hers (and She is not at all the unified, ahistorical, steady-state machine we have for several hundred years suspected). Given the severity of our situation, the Whiteheadian philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour has provided us with an ultimatum: either continue the disastrous path of modernization, or change the course of civilization entirely by ecologizing the human endeavor.

Now that dualism has been largely discredited, many proponents of modernization are seeking philosophical justification by defending eliminativist or reductionist forms of materialistic monism. My paper will attempt to bring the ecologically oriented Whiteheadian alternative of panexperientialist pluralism into distinct relief by contrasting it with late modern eliminativist monism. Reductive monism is the confused result of the incoherent Modern Constitution that Latour so thoroughly critiqued and re-constructed in We Have Never Been Modern (1993). In their rush to reductively naturalize everything in theory, eliminativists have neglected the extent to which the techno-scientific practices they worship have in fact only ever succeeded in multiplying the number of nature-society hybrids. The more they claim to have acquired pure knowledge of the human brain (cleansed of any contamination by culture or the dreaded psychology of common folks), the more these hybrids proliferate. This eliminativist attempt at (what Whitehead would call) a heroic feat of “explaining away” is itself little more than a form of political posturing, an attempt to crown oneself the victor of the progressive march toward a finally, truly Modern world. If anyone is confused, it is the eliminativists, since at least all the poor common people with their unscientific and pre-theoretical folk psychology escape the embarrassment of the blatant contradictions between theory and practice that plague the former. If our civilization is to have a future, it cannot be achieved by such polemical grandstanding. We need a more diplomatic method, which is precisely what an ecological and pluralistic ontology makes way for.

We can begin to ecologize our civilization by first ecologizing our philosophy. Ancient and modern philosophies alike have sought unity, substantiality, and eternity. In contrast, an ecological philosophy acknowledges the tendency of things to proliferate, to process, to interpenetrate. An ecological philosophy is a pluralistic and historical philosophy. Historical because there is nothing—no creature and no relationship—that did not come to be in the course of evolutionary time. Historical becoming is not reserved for human society alone. Humanity is itself just the most recent chapter in a multi-billion year geostorical cascade of complex and compounding effects. Pluralistic because our seeming “universe” is really teeming with swarms of undomesticated teloi. It is a pluriverse full of erotically charged organisms enmeshed in irreducibly complex networks of energetic transaction. In Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological. In other words, ecology replaces physics as the foundational science. Value-experience replaces valueless matter as the most basic ontological category.

Much of what I want to say about Whitehead’s panexperientialist alternative to eliminativist materialism will be filtered through Bruno Latour’s ontological pluralism, as spelled out in We Have Never Been Modern and more recently in An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2012). I reviewed a chapter from this book (the chapter on materialism) as part of a co-investigation with other scholars here: For those of you new to Latour, some of the jargon may be difficult to follow. Grant Maxwell and I exchanged a few blog posts comparing Richard Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind with Latour’s earlier book We Have Never Been Modern. The exchange might provide a helpful introduction to Latour’s ideas if you want to dig deeper: 

6 Replies to “Towards an abstract for my presentation at the International Whitehead Conference, “Re-imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism””

  1. A few points I hope you follow up on:

    First, part of the critique launched in We Have Never Been Modern is that there never was a “state of nature” from which we emerged. Latour is quite different from Whitehead on this point, as there is no nature, either as concept or as unified ontological territory, that humans or any other critters were ever immersed in. And so, as a consequence of this view, we were never alienated from nature either. It’s a false problem. This is perhaps the essential thesis of that work, and one that obviously cuts against some of your other, let’s say more anachronistic, assumptions and metaphors.

    Second, I’m still wondering about how you wrest the “pan-” in “panexperientialism” from its monist underpinnings. I think once you’ve made a claim for “pan-” anything ontological pluralism has already gone out the window. (Claiming that reality consists in multiple perspectives and/or experiences is still to say that it’s all a variety of the same thing—experience.) So, in my view, you can either be a monist and a panexperientialist or be a pluralist and accept that there is no base layer of which everything else is a variant of, but not both.

    1. I don’t think Whitehead and Latour’s differences are conceptual; they seem to me to be only terminological. Whitehead may still use the word “Nature,” but he certainly doesn’t mean a unified something “out there” that humans stepped out of at some point in order to enter history. As I said in the post, we are not alienated from nature, and nature is not what moderns have supposed.

      As for the “pan” problem, I appreciate you highlighting that issue. I do need to develop this more… I want a flat ontology where the categories of the metaphysical scheme apply to all variety of creatures without exceptions made for humans or for gods. So “pan” is important in that respect. To make experience the common denominator doesn’t, to my mind, throw pluralism out the window. Making experience the “ground” of an ontology, rather than substance, shifts us toward contingency and relationality and away from necessity and isolation. To call experience a “ground” is misleading, since it is really groundless in the sense that its spatial and temporal contents cannot be specified in advance/a priori. To say all creatures are experiential is only to say that they enact one of a potentially infinite variety of time-space umwelten. So sure, all creatures are the same in that they are spatiotemporally oriented in some way or another; but (metaphysically speaking) there can be as many spatiotemporal orientations as there are creatures. I specify that this infinite potentiality of time-spaces is metaphysical since, cosmologically speaking, the actual history of our universe, with its complex accumulation of past decisions made by specific creatures, makes many future time-space orientations unlikely if not impossible (due to incompatibilities) for this particular cosmic epoch. We are largely bound, in other words, to inherit the decisions made by photons and electrons 13 billion years ago. The “pan” then also speaks to the relationality of all experiences to one another, to the way there is in fact a contingent and open-ended unity to things, a unity that must always be re-established and is always at risk of fraying should creativity erupt in some locality or another out of season.

      1. “As I said in the post, we are not alienated from nature, and nature is not what moderns have supposed” — an alternative but equivalent title from Latour would be, “Between Nature and Ecology We Have to Choose.” Now if only someone had written a book about what an ecology without nature would look like…

      2. I think Pandora’s Hope is the more successful book overall, but Politics of Nature deals more specifically with these issues. One strength of Politics of Nature, though, is that it has a great intro chapter and concluding summary. I might read those two selections and then spend more time with Pandora’s Hope if you’re pressed for time.

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