“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Lectures on Timothy Morton’s “Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People”

Process and Difference in the Pluriverse
(opening lecture)

My Spring course at CIIS.edu finishes up this week with a set of modules on Timothy Morton’s book Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (2017). Earlier in the semester, we read works by Plato, William James, Catherine Keller, William Connolly, Bruno Latour, Anne Pomeroy, and Donna Haraway. Below, I am sharing a series of lecture fragments about Morton’s book, as well as a panel discussion formed around the course topics.



6 responses to “Lectures on Timothy Morton’s “Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People””

  1. Sam Mickey Avatar

    The connection between Haraway’s use of sympoiesis and Morton’s ideas of the symbiotic real seems fruitful. Morton’s a weird voice in this context of process politics, since his object-oriented ontology is somewhat opposed to process thought on some key points. You’re enacting a good Whiteheadian reading, facilitating “a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast” (PR 348).

    1. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

      Thanks, Sam. There are certainly tasty and nutritious fruits to be grown by grafting these rhizomes together.

      I’ve not done an exhaustive search through Morton’s writing for engagements with Whitehead (only a cursory Google books search), but when I have seen mentions of Whiteheadian process-relational ontology, I have not recognized the Whitehead I know and love in Morton’s all too brief dismissals. Could you point me to a more sustained treatment/critique of Whitehead by Morton? From what I have read in both Morton and his OOO teacher Graham Harman, Whitehead is consistently mischaracterized as a relational reductionist who overmines individuals. Other close readers of Whitehead, like our own Jake Sherman, make the opposite argument, that Whitehead is too atomistic and undermines substantive wholes by reducing them to their constituent parts. Both readings are possible with partial readings of Whitehead’s texts, but IMO miss the higher contrast Whitehead was attempting. Whitehead really does want to have it both ways, preserving both the irreducible privacy of individual subjective forms (which in each moment unify their many prehensions into a novel, never before achieved perspective) as well as the relational publicity of superjective expressions.

      The only way Whitehead becomes the relational reductionist that Morton and Harman characterize him as is if we eliminate eternal objects and God and re-imagine his ontology only in terms of an inheritance of fully immanent actual occasions.

      1. Sam Mickey Avatar

        I don’t think Morton ever attempts any engagement with Whitehead’s texts. Harman’s reading is probably compatible with Prof. Sherman. It’s a classic case of duomining. Jake’s point that Whitehead is undermining individuals by reducing wholes to parts sounds right, and each of those parts is determined entirely by relations, including public relations and the self-relations of private prehensions. I’m not sure, but I would not be surprised if Harman does write somewhere about Whitehead as duomining. Maybe a fresh reading of God and eternal objects can help mitigate the duomining. But then we’ve jumped out of the frying pan and right into the fire. For Morton, process and relational philosophies have escaped the world of substantialism/essentialism, but they still exhibit the metaphysics of presence. His logic square of Western philosophy is a good source. It’s in “Treating Objects Like Women”:

        As you know, the metaphysics of presence is a Heidegger and Derrida thing.
        It gets back to the whole question of whether there is anything like Heideggerian withdrawal in Whitehead, which I’m not trying to solve. Geesh! I’ll just say this, in the spirit of Heidegger/Derrida/Morton-style deconstruction:

        Withdrawal is so close, so intimate, that we can’t point to it, and the history of philosophy is the history of different failed attempts to point to it. God, spirit, process, transcendental ego, the groundless ground, even Dasein, alas. Heidegger and Derrida set a very high bar for thinking. Actually, it’s more like they lowered the bar to the ground or even got rid of the bar altogether, so that we might think by turning our lights to what is directly underfoot, as the Zen saying goes. The withdrawal of a thing is just what it is and nothing more…not even nothing more. But it’s never present. What appears is a past that’s never been present (the past past), but remains to come (the future future).

      2. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

        Ah yes, duomining. I’d forgotten about that critique. But again, the “parts” in Whitehead (actual occasions) are not determined entirely by their relations. Yes, the many become one in each occasion (the relational side), but the many are also increased by one as each occasion creatively contributes a new subjective perspective to the pluriverse (at least in the subjective form phase prior to perishing into superjective expression, this is Whitehead’s version of non-relational withdrawal). The subjective form of an actual occasion isn’t a “self-relation,” as any such relation would be described instead as a society or historical route of actual occasions. I do think work needs to be done to give Whitehead’s category of “society” more ontological weight, so that it isn’t just reducible to actual occasions.

        I’ll check out the Morton paper and think more on the critique that Whitehead is just more ontotheology. I think this is an uncharitable reading at best, but I’ll try to show my work.

        Thanks for your engagement, Sam! Good stuff.

      3. Sam Mickey Avatar

        One more point about your last reply (I’m replying here since I didn’t see a reply button on that last comment). I don’t think subjective form does quite the same work as alterity or withdrawal, but I imagine it’s a good concept to help reframe the tension between process and deconstruction: shifting from opposition to contrast. OOO folks aren’t being uncharitable with Whitehead. A lot of Whiteheadians are pretty much relationalists, and Whitehead himself has some very relationalist moments, like this one: “If anything out of relationship, then complete ignorance as to it” (Science in the Modern World, 25). Harman and Morton aren’t saying anything very different from Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible. She acknowledges that Whitehead is simply not an apophatic thinker, and that’s totally okay, whereas poststructuralists like Derrida are very apophatic (withdrawal is an apophatic concept, subjective form is kataphatic). Process theology and negative theology are different, but they tangle well, crowding together in the cloud.

  2. Jonathan Moodie Avatar
    Jonathan Moodie

    I’m still getting to know Timothy Morton’s work, but its seems to me that Humean empiricism would be a fruitful starting point, for comparisons between Morton and Whitehead. Morton seems to celebrate Hume, while Whitehead, of course, critiques the hell out of him. I’ve found the (post-Stengers) Whiteheadian commentary of Steven Shaviro to be particularly useful on this topic.

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