A reading group I’ve participated in for several years now just finished Shaviro’s Without Criteria. We wrapped up the discussion thinking through, among other things, the contrasting conceptions of “system” articulated in Kant’s and Whitehead’s works. Here are some excerpts from the two philosophers that get at the contrast.
“The reader must naturally have a strong inducement to co-operate with the present author, if he has formed the intention of erecting a complete and solid edifice of metaphysical science, according to the plan now laid before him. Metaphysics, as here represented, is the only science which admits of completion—and with little labor, if it is united, in a short time; so that nothing will be left to future generations except the task of illustrating and applying it didactically. For this science is nothing more than the inventory of all that is given us by pure reason, systematically arranged. Nothing can escape our notice; for what reason produces from itself cannot lie concealed, but must be brought to the light by reason itself, so soon as we have discovered the common principle of the ideas we seek. The perfect unity of this kind of cognitions, which are based upon pure conceptions, and uninfluenced by any empirical element, or any peculiar intuition leading to determinate experience, renders this completeness not only practicable, but also necessary.” -Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
“Systems, scientific and philosophic, come and go. Each method of limited understanding is at length exhausted. In its prime each system is a triumphant success: in its decay it is an obstructive nuisance. […] Our task is to understand how in fact the human mind can successfully set to work for the gradual definition of its habitual ideas. It is a step by step process, achieving no triumphs of finality. We cannot produce that final adjustment of well-defined generalities which constitute a complete metaphysics. But we can produce a variety of partial systems of limited generality. The concordance of ideas within any one such system shows the scope and virility of the basic notions of that scheme of thought. Also the discordance of system with system, and success of each system as a partial mode of illumination, warns us of the limitations within which our intuitions are hedged. These undiscovered limitations are the topics for philosophic research.” -Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas
There are vast differences between the two approaches to philosophy, and yet Whitehead’s last two sentences on searching for undiscovered limitations sounds a bit like Kant’s notion of transcendental conditions. Only for Kant, one didn’t so much search for these conditions as “deduce” them, which is not a logical procedure but a juridical term employed metaphorically in the Critique. Kant argued that the transcendental conditions limiting our experience of “world” were pre-installed in the mind “by right.” Whitehead’s conception of “philosophic research” is far more Jamesian, meaning our search is not for necessary categorical structures but emergent dynamics of aesthesis, or in other words, evolutionarily acquired habits of perception too general and obvious as features of our unconscious background experience to be noticed. Whiteheadian philosophical research is thus the struggle to uncover the obvious. It is thus more like a phenomenological reduction than a legal declaration of rights, only rather than assuming a transcendental ego (or even a transcendental intersubject) anchors all experience in some pre-established unity, Whitehead’s phenomenological reduction reveals the groundless ground of Creativity as the most general characterless characteristic of experience. Creativity is not a solid foundation or an empty abyss, but more like the salty surface of the Dead Sea that provides some buoyancy for balancing atop. It is Catherine Keller’s “Face of the Deep.”
Thank you, President Subbiondo. Thanks also to our Academic Vice President Judie Wexler, to our honorary degree recipients Angela Davis and Josef Brinckmann, and to all CIIS faculty and staff for the work you have done to make this day possible for me and for my fellow graduates.
I am a philosopher, which is not to say that I know the answer to every question, but that I tend to ask what some people may think of as annoyingly obvious questions. If you don’t also happen to have the philosophical itch, I hope you will forgive me for asking the following: What is a university? What are we doing here today, “graduating” from one? I’ll offer the simplest answer I can think of: a university is a community of learning, and we, as university graduates, are supposed to be learned to some degree or another.
Now, unfortunately, university education, especially in the humanities, is increasingly under threat in our country. I’ll let the great philosopher Martha Nussbaum (who teaches at the University of Chicago) set the scene: “nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.”
Our profit-driven economic system–the industrial growth society–has decided that science, technology, and engineering alone should shape the future (with barely a feigned nod to art, culture, wisdom, or a thorough grasp of history). As the late Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah put it, contemporary American universities, while they may on rare occasions still function as “instruments in the class struggle,” are increasingly being transformed into “wholesale knowledge outlets for consumer society.” The entire educational system is being re-designed to produce efficient, responsible corporate or state worker-consumers. In our present economy, we are told to seek a university education, not for culture or learning, not to become more sensitive human beings, but for job preparation. Even at CIIS, this reality cannot be ignored. We need jobs to survive, to eat, to pay rent, after all.
But for those of us who chose to come to CIIS, I believe something deeper than mere survival is motivating us. We came here to learn how to thrive; to learn how to heal the human psyche and body; to learn to philosophize; to learn the wisdom of the world’s various religions, spiritual paths, and indigenous ways of knowing; to learn about present possibilities for social and institutional change.
I might stop there, having basically read the names of the degrees on the diplomas that we are receiving today. But I want to probe a bit deeper for a moment. What is beneath these specializations? What is university learning really about at, well, the most universal level? I want to suggest that at the deepest level and in the most general sense, a university should help each human being find their unique role not only in society at this particular historical juncture, not only their profession in this particular job market, but their role in the ongoing evolution of the community of life on earth, 4 billion years in the making. The purpose of the university is to prepare us for life in the Universe, itself 14 billion years in the making. Universities should help orient us and to encourage us to become creative participants in this wondrous miracle we call existence. Yes, yes, earning a living is also important. But as the late geologian Thomas Berry suggested (and I paraphrase), “universities must decide whether they will continue training persons for temporary survival in a declining [industrial civilization,] or whether they will begin educating students for [what we hope is an emerging ecological civilization].”
CIIS is one of the few educational organizations to have taken the evolutionary crisis Berry is pointing to seriously. It has decided to be (and I quote from the mission statement): a “university that strives to embody spirit, intellect, and wisdom in service to individuals, communities, and the earth.” Such an unorthodox mission has not made it easy for this non-profit university to survive in an educational marketplace offering more prestige, technical training, and higher salary expectations. At several points going back to the founding in the 1950s of CIIS’s earlier institutional incarnation (the American Academy of Asian Studies) by the international trader Louis Gainsborough, this university has needed the generous philanthropic support of the business community to continue and expand its activities. The Academy’s dean in the early days, the well-known philosopher and mystic Alan Watts, reported that Gainsborough’s initial vision for the school was as an “information service” on Indian and Chinese religions. Watts, of course, made it clear that he and the other founding faculty (including Frederic Spiegelberg, Haridas Chaudhuri, and Judith Tyberg) “had no real interest in this nonetheless sensible idea of an information service.” “We were concerned,” Watts says, “with the practical transformation of human consciousness.”
I believe the transformation of human consciousness is still the underlying concern of CIIS’s educational efforts. Jobs are important, yes. But the jobs that CIIS graduates want to work at to a large extent do not yet exist. The political parties that graduates of CIIS want to vote for do not yet exist. The world that graduates of CIIS want does not yet exist. Our role as graduates of this university is to play some part, small or large, mediocre or monumental, in the creation of new worlds. We don’t yet know what the future of life on this planet will look like, which is why I’ve pluralized “world.” We are called to participate with one another in the creation of new worlds. We should experiment with as many new world-formations and forms of consciousness as we can imagine, because the way forward is uncertain. Some of us may create something beautiful and enduring. Some of us may fail. If we are honest with ourselves, the entire human species may fail in its response to the present social and ecological crises. I don’t know, but I remain hopeful that, as the Indian yogi and integral philosopher Sri Aurobindo said, “By our stumbling, the world is perfected.”
I will leave you with a challenge. It is a challenge for my fellow graduates and for myself. I challenge us to continue to be of service to the evolution of this nation, of our species, of all species, and ultimately of the Universe itself. I challenge us, in whatever form our work in the world takes, to remain awake and engaged in the task of planetary transformation, to refuse to lose ourselves in the somnambulance of consumer culture. We cannot be sure where this journey will lead. All we can be sure of is our own intentions as active participants in the adventure. We must ask ourselves, what are we doing here? And we must never stop asking it. Is it merely to survive? To pay the bills? To play the lotto and strike it rich? I don’t believe so. According to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “The task of a university is the creation of the future.” As university graduates, this is now our task.
Blow rightly points out why Trump’s campaign manager is sorely mistaken about the prospects of winning over Bernie’s supporters in the general election. It’s not going to happen. Yes, there is a shared distrust of Hillary. But the similarities end there.
But Blow is also missing the point. Bernie’s support is not coming from people who think the political system is broken. The political system is actually functioning exactly as it has been designed to function. Bernie’s supporters are angry because democracy has been replaced by neoliberal capitalism. Voting has thus been reduced to another consumer choice based on brand identity. The two-party system is designed to protect the super wealthy from the threat of growing class consciousness. The two major parties do everything they can to prevent large sectors of the population from thinking about the real causes of the socioeconomic imbalances in our system and instead find ways to divide up the electorate based on identity politics: race, gender, sexuality, etc. Not that there are not injustices that need our attention in these areas (Trump’s rise shows we have lots of work to do on this front). But by continuing to allow the oligarchs to frame our political process for us, we remain vulnerable to the temptation to continue fighting with one another over the table scraps they throw us. Identity politics has played an important part in the process of liberation for marginalized peoples, but thus far this liberation has only been allowed to unfold in the framework set by neoliberal capitalism. In other words, the civil rights movements for women and for black, gay, and lesbian people have succeeded in securing many of the legal protections afforded white men (again, more work remains on the cultural front). But the framework these liberatory movements have unfolded within assures that the most that can be achieved is equal status as a wage-earning consumer within the capitalist profit-machine. I recognize that my positionality as a white male makes it perhaps all too easy for me to say this, and I welcome other perspectives to help me see my blind spots, but it seems to me that at this point in the game we need to begin recognizing the various identities we employ to brand ourselves are a means of political transformation, rather than an end. If they are an end in themselves, then the transformational process can only produce further social fragmentation among the 99%, thus further inhibiting our collective ability to overthrow oligarchy. Does equality mean equal right to work 60 hours a week for stagnant wages so we can all afford to lease a car, pay rent, and send our kids to college to become indentured servants to banks for the rest of their lives? Maybe we’ve forgotten what individual freedom and social flourishing really mean.
There is more at stake in this election than the mainstream media’s talking heads are allowed to let on. What does the next century hold in store for America? Capitalism’s fantasy of never-ending economic growth is being severely challenged by the ecological and social crises. Back when capitalism was first establishing itself, colonial theft of unspoiled land and labor from non-Europeans made it seem like profits would never end. In the 20th century, capital relied upon the energy produced by fossil fuel to replace all that emancipated slave labor (though of course it still depends upon the wage-slavery of large sectors of the “developing” world). But now the petroleum interval is ending, the third-world is demanding higher wages, and the Earth is reminding us that its carrying capacity is not unlimited. From this point forward, capitalism can only secure growth by making sure 99% of us remain insecure and continue to bicker at one another about “family values.” Divide and conquer: it is the oldest ruling class strategy for domination in the book. The oligarchy is counting on us to continue believing that there are no economically viable alternatives to capitalism.
In reality, there has never been a better opportunity to fundamentally transform the economic model that has gotten us into this social and ecological crisis. Whether we look to the secular approach of Naomi Klein or the spiritual approach of Pope Francis for this transformation, let us not forget that there is hope on multiple fronts.