Catherine Keller: The Cosmopolitical Entanglements of Process-Relational Theology

In what follows, I offer some reflections on the feminist process theologian Catherine Keller’s book Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (2015). Keller poetically folds her refreshingly open theological orientation into an array of important planetary topics,—including the ethical implications of quantum entanglement (chapter 4), the poststructuralist dissolution of substance (chapter 5) and of rigid gender binaries (chapter 7), the history of the Christian crusades and their relation to the rise of colonial modernity and global capitalism (chapter 8), the retrieval of Gaia as a more adequate name for God than “father” or “king” (chapter 9),—and unfolds from their implications possible sources of hope for our imperiled planet. She traverses these topoi with radical epistemological uncertainty while reiterating their, and our, ontological inseparability with every step.

Self-confident secularists may protest that turning to a theological mode of discourse like Keller’s in the face of our species’ present social, political, and ecological problems is only to regress into the very source of our problems! Why rehash the religious myths of the past if we modern, rational people now have the precision instruments of scientific knowledge, machines, and the capitalist market to guide us into a better future?

First of all, myth is not a childish embellishment upon sociopolitical reality, but the divine ground of individual and collective life. We don’t grow out of myth, we grow out of one myth and into another. Without myth, psyche and polis would have no way of attuning to cosmos. With no attunement to the cosmos, Thomas Berry would remind us that we will find no functional relationship with the ecosystems of the planet.1 Modernity’s rituals of certain knowledge, technological excess, and “progress” are themselves zealously drenched in mythic manna. As Latour taught us, we have never been modern.

Second of all, Keller’s theopoetics are not the divine fiats of Pope Urban II or the violent repressions of evangelical Christian capitalists. She talks God otherwise. She is a process theologian who learned her God-talk from Whitehead: God is “the poet of the world,” a “fellow-sufferer who understands” seeking “with tender care that nothing be lost” by luring the universe from utter loss toward complete love.2 Though in Cloud of the Impossible Keller draws heavily on “ancestral Christian sources” like Nicholaus of Cusa and Giordano Bruno, she explicates from them not the “militant ghosts of premodern omnipotence,”3 but a relational pluralism wherein God is the Supreme Complication, the dark Cloud wherein each is inseparably implicated in All. God is the “Non-Aliud” or non-Other whose name is infinite and so ineffable, and for this very reason enfolding infinitely many names. In Cusa’s terms:

“All the names are unfoldings of the enfolding one, ineffable name, and as this proper name is infinite, so it enfolds an infinite number of such names of particular perfections. Although there could be many such unfoldings, they are never so many or so great that there could not be more.”4

God has many names: Yahweh, Christ, Man, Machine, Capital. All more or less imperfectly convey the divine mystery. Keller performs her pluralism theologically not because she seeks to violently settle a diverse society on a new peace-instilling divine name, but because our “modern” scientific and political perspectives are “inexplicable apart from medieval theological presumptions of a creation good and open to reason.”5 We (the inheritors of European Christendom) can think God otherwise, but we cannot think without God.

In this lecture from a course on pluralism and political theory, I explored Plato’s ploy in the Republic to examine the soul by expanding it to the size of a city; in chapter 4, “The Physics of Nonseparability,” Keller invites us to examine the ethical entanglements of psyche and polis by way of a “contraction to the quantum point of view.”6 But why examine ethics by way of physics? What could be more irrelevant to untangling the ethical significance of human action than the strangely knotted world of quantum entanglement? Keller turns to the surprising and refreshing work of feminist philosopher Karen Barad to lure standard interpretations of quantum theory beyond their anthropocentric conceits. Barad reinterprets Neil Bohr’s more Kantian quantum transcendentalism (i.e., physics doesn’t tell us what Nature is, it only tells us what we can say about Nature) such that it becomes a new relational ontology. She makes no mention of Whitehead in her book Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007), but their projects are clearly convergent. Rather than understanding Bohr’s principle of complementarity as a reflection of the limitations of our knowledge of quantum phenomena, Barad asserts that the undecidability of the pre-observed nature of quantum events is in fact a constitutive feature of quantum reality. Einstein was unhappy with Bohr’s quantum universe, as it’s apparent indeterminacy stood in stark contrast to the strict determinism of his relativistic universe. Einstein went so far as to joke that he’d rather give up physics to become a shoe-maker or a poker dealer than accept that electrons had free will.7 During an evening walk with a close colleague of Bohr’s, Einstein once asked: “Do you really believe the Moon is not there if nobody looks?” From Barad’s perspective, it isn’t that the Moon isn’t there when we aren’t looking, it’s that when we do look, a new Moon, and a new me, emerge in the encounter. It turns out that the idea of separability itself was only ever a convenient fiction, whether we are talking about the level of protons or persons. The very notion of a isolated “thing” (a classical particle or body-bound observer) has been undone by Barad’s “agential realism,” wherein the final realities are “intra-active” agencies rather than isolable entities. These agencies or creatures (to use Whitehead’s favored term) are not dissolved into their relational intra-actions, “rather, the creature emerges within the creative field that it differentiates [such that] the attributes that make one creature different from another [are] acts of differentiation [and not] inherent properties of a discrete substance.”8 Acts or performances of differentiation are what individuate us moment by moment; our identities are always established through intra-active relationship.

Keller blames the instrumentalist Zeitgeist of the post-War US for keeping physicists from pursuing the full import of the quantum enigmas unveiled by Einstein, Bohr, and others. “Shut up and calculate” was the mantra.9 More recently, thanks to physicist-philosophers like John Bell, David Bohm, and Whitehead, the paradigm-shattering implications of quantum entanglement are now more widely acknowledged.10 In Keller’s words, “science…inherited from theology the metaphysics of separate substance, supernatural and natural.”11 But quantum physics has exposed “in broad scientific daylight [that] the minimum unit of the universe [is] a place of active relationship,” and that “each particularity is a distinct recomposition of its world.”12

In chapter 5, “The Fold in Process,” Keller folds together (but not without remainder) the work of Gilles Deleuze and Whitehead, who each in their own ways creatively unsaid the metaphysics of substance to instead celebrate the differential connectivity of the world. Deleuze, like Whitehead, was influenced by William James’ pluralistic and pragmatic orientation to philosophy. “In the Deleuzean work,” writes Keller,

“concepts themselves are multiplied and mobilized. They do not reflect, mirror, or subserve the real; they participate in its becoming. They do not cut the world into abstractions. They ply the world; they apply themselves to its practices.”13

In other words, rather than construing philosophy as a search for the true concepts that would accurately represent or mirror the nature of mind-independent reality, Deleuze engaged philosophy as the creation of new concepts capable of transforming reality, irrespective of any imagined boundaries supposedly separating mental from physical realities. Novel concepts resonate in the world, shaking up its settled order; or old concepts repeat endlessly, shoring up settled natural and social habits. Concepts are not mere mirrors, reflectively uninvolved in the workings of the world. Their value is derived from what they do or make it possible to do.

Keller skillfully unpacks the resonances and differences between Deleuze’s Spinozist pantheism and Whitehead’s thoroughly reformed process-relational panentheism. She wonders if the former’s insistence on pure immanence is the best way to overcome the separative transcendence so characteristic of traditional theology. Whitehead’s theology rejects the tendency so prevalent in the ontotheological traditions of the West to pay metaphysical compliments to God (all-knowing, all- good, all-powerful, etc.). His process-relational God is not the all-powerful exception to but the prime exemplification of creative flux. Whitehead’s God is described as a creature of Creativity. God a creature?: it would be hard to imagine a more heretical statement from the point of view of an orthodox Christian, Jewish, or Islamic theologian. Nonetheless, Whitehead is unwilling to jettison the divine function entirely, whereas Deleuze celebrates the death of God with Nietzschean zeal.

In chapter 7, “Unsaying and Undoing,” Keller enters into conversation with the Kant of Queer Theory, Judith Butler. She differentiates the 20th century social constructionist Butler, who brilliantly deconstructed falsely naturalized gender norms using the tools of poststructuralism, from the 21st century social ontologist Butler, who after exposure to Whitehead overcame her earlier ethical anthropocentrism by articulating a relational ontology that queered reality itself. Keller writes:

“Whitehead, attending to the exclusions wrought by closed systems, hearkens to the nonhuman universe, alive and participant in all our finite human decisions [“We have no right to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the Universe”14]. An attention to the not yet known of the entire creaturely plenum, nurtured by his mathematical involvement in the natural sciences and his love of the romantic poets of his region, now carries the force of ancestral prophecy. The ethical anthropocentrism of Butler’s philosophy, even after the end of the last millennium, counts in this one way as the more traditional.”15

Keller celebrates Butler’s late turn to the queerness of a relational ontology. She criticizes poststructuralism’s prior tendency to over-focus on the way we are constructed by language, culture, and society, while downplaying or ignoring our relations to nonhumans. Poststructural approaches follow the relations and ruptures of linguistic signs with other signs in systems of signification with great precision and insight. Such an approach can and has called out oppressive social structures that shape culture by disguising it as Nature, thus opening pathways toward more ethical human relations. But what about our relations to such nonhuman diversities as fireflies, microchips, polar bears, influenza, plate tectonics, and starlight?

In addition to her encounter with Whitehead, Butler was motivated to undertake her ontological insurrection by way of a meditation on loss, precarity, and mourning. Mourning reveals to us what was always already the case before the loss of a loved one, that our selves are incomplete due to their constitutive relationality. “It is not,” Butler writes,

“as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ is part of what composes who ‘I’ am…Who ‘am’ I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do.”16

Just as with the entangled intra-actions of physical quanta, human souls are stitched together from the inside-out by threads of precarious and promiscuous influence. “Let’s face it,” writes Butler, “We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”17 Keller links Butler’s still human-focused ethics of relationality to Whitehead’s process-relational ontology: “loss belongs to the ecology of becoming,” as all our relations are composed of prehensions of “perishing others as they pass into us.”18 By dying into one another, we create one another. This process of decomposition and recomposition is occurring at every scale of Nature, human and non-, and reiterates endlessly “to the crack of doom.”19 It marks for Whitehead the primary miracle of creation, whereby the dry bones of the past are clothed again in the flesh of renewed purpose and zest for life.20 It is the miracle whereby actual occasions perpetually perish “and yet live for evermore.”21

Butler, speaking directly to Whiteheadians eager to overcome anthropocentrism, warns of the risks of overlooking the profound singularity of loss. Keller amplifies Butler’s concerns: “celebrations of the cycles of life and death may not support the human ethic that suffers individual losses and honors grief…the human difference needs protecting from reductive indifference.”22 We ought to stay as close as possible to such concerns to attend radically to that which is not human. My hope is that it is precisely through recovering a sense of ethical relation with the nonhuman realms that our true humanness will become most apparent. Perhaps it is the very search for some supernatural identity apart from the planet of our birth that has so degraded our humanity.

In chapter 8, “Crusade, Capital, and Cosmopolis,” Keller traces the way the medieval Christian West overcame its internal divisions and discovered a unifying sense of identity through centuries of crusading against Islam. Western self-identity is thus constitutively Islamaphobic. “Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians.”23 Such was Pope Urban II’s rallying cry in 1095, on the eve of the first crusade to push back the Turks and retake the Holy Land.

Several centuries of crusading later, after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, Nicholas of Cusa, a Catholic cardinal, called for a conference of faiths instead of yet another religious war. In place of forced conversion to Christianity or to Islam, Cusa imagined a conversation among representatives of many faiths who, with help from the Logos, might come to agree that though there are many religious or cultural rites the world over (among them Christianity and Islam), there is only one infinite and thus ineffable God. Cusa articulates what could be Christendom’s earliest doctrine of inclusivism. To the Logos, he says: “rivalry [among faiths] exists for the sake of You, whom alone they revere in everything that all seem to worship.”24 While Cusa’s mystical inclusivism may fall short of the radical pluralism I’d prefer, in its time and place at the sunrise of Modernity, it, too, was radical. Perhaps even today, the two biggest religions Christianity and Islam still have much to learn from an inclusivist theology like Cusa’s, since both remain for the most part dead set on exclusivist interpretations of the truth of their own doctrines. Keller’s hope is that a relational pluralism might help exclusivists begin to feel what they share with other faiths: namely, a love of God—Cusa’s “Infinite Complication”—which enfolds all the world’s religious expressions.

Keller goes on to enter into dialogue with Enrique Dussel’s thesis on the origins of Modernity, not in northern Germany with Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation (as Hegel argued), but in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. From Dussel’s perspective, Descartes’ ego cogito was preceded and sustained by an ego conquiro: “if the ego cogito doubts the world around him, the ego conquiro doubts the very humanity of conquered others.”25

In our hypermodern age, the crusader complex has taken the form of global capitalism, “in which oil —and therefore Islam—figures prominently.”26 Keller quotes political analyst Thomas Frank, who in his book One Market Under God argued that sometime in the 90s people came to believe that “there is something natural, something divine, something inherently democratic about markets.”27 What a strange litany of adjectives! The global capitalist market is entirely natural, a consequence of biological evolution, and yet at the same time it is also divine, the only source of human salvation? And “democratic”? Keller admits that capitalism’s “flexible interactivity captures something of the ontological process of entanglement,” and that attempted solutions to our planetary problems via top-down State imposition are doomed to failure.28 And yet, contemporary neoliberal capitalism does not advertise the pluriverse’s participatory matrix of “each-in-each”; rather, it asserts an ontology of isolable individuals counted “ego-by-ego,” pushing a new ruse of separability that stays ‘connected.’”29

From Keller’s process theological perspective, any effective resistance to the God of the global capitalist market must be a religious form resistance. She introduces the political theology of Carl Schmitt, who argued that all supposedly modern political theories of the state were really just secularized theological concepts. Schmitt’s approach led him to a theory of the State wherein political order is achieved through the exceptional right of an all-powerful sovereign. Keller asks instead if we “can have some transmodern rendition of political theology that does not take its cues from the militant ghosts of this premodern omnipotence?”30 She offers Whitehead’s panentheism as a truly democratic alternative to Schmitt’s totalitarian theism. For Whitehead, God is not the supreme exception, but the supreme example, the fellow-sufferer who understands.

In chapter 9, “Broken Touch: The Ecology of the Impossible,” Keller elucidates the hidden meaning of the Pergamon Altar depicting a groaning Gaia reaching out for one of her stricken children beneath a victorious Athena. She reads the scene as a metaphor for the origins of the polis or perhaps even civilization as such: “It would seem that we have to do here with an ancient complex… relation to the earth-home is sacrificed on the altar of civilization—driven into the civilizational unconscious…Might we recognize here a Gaia complex? It lends a face to the more ancient and diffuse fear of the nonhuman universe from which the human is inseparable: call it ecophobia.”31 Keller turns to the climate scientist James Lovelock to exemplify the way a new story of Gaia is being brought forth in our ecologically imperiled age. Lovelock has grown increasingly skeptical of humanity’s chances of averting the worst of climate change and the broader ecological crisis. The time to wake up and take responsibility for the destabilizing effects of human industry on the planet has passed. “I fear,” Lovelock writes, “that we still dream on and, rather than waking, we weave the sound of the alarm clock into our dreams.”32

What is still possible now that civilization has gone so far past the tipping point of planetary catastrophe? Humanity stands face to face with Gaia, and we are dumbstruck. “The entanglement of the human in the crowding nonhumanity of the species and elements of the earth…endlessly [overwhelms] speech—with wonder or horror.”33 Might a renewed attempt at ecotheology help shepherd our species through the coming evolutionary bottleneck? Might we–“we” earthlings, our collectivity delicately composed by our shared planetary fate—find in the face of Gaia a source of numinous meaning powerful enough to heal the ecophobic repression at the root of our civilization? Keller wonders aloud: “how on earth is the earth itself, Gaia, inclusive of all of us, a less apt God- name than the name of a mere bit of the earth, like a ‘father’ or a ‘king’?”34


1 Berry, The Great Work, 84: “ecology is functional cosmology.”

2 Whitehead, Process and R eality, Part 5.

3 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 260.

4 Cusa, De docta ignorantia, in N icolas of Cusa: S elected S piritual Writings, trans. H. Lawrence Bond (New York: Paulist, 1997), 124-125.

5 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 131.

6 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 132.

7 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 134.

8 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 139.

9 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 154.

10 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 155.

11 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 131.

12 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 128, 142.

13 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 174.

14 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 111.

15 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 232.

16 Butler, Precarious Life (London: Verso, 2004), 22.

17 Butler quoted in Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 215.

18 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 225-226.

19 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 228.

20 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 85.

21 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 351.

22 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 235.

23 M edieval Worlds: A Sourcebook, ed. Roberta Anderson and Dominic Aidan Belenger (New York: Routledge, 2003), 90.

24 Cusa, On Interreligious H armony: Text, Concordance, and Translation of DePace Fidei, ed. James E. Biechler and H. Lawrence Bond (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1990), 6.

25 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 257; Dussel and Barber, The Invention of theAmericas, 245.

26 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 253.

27 Quoted in Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 254.

28 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 255.

29 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 254.

30 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 260.

31 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 267-268.

32 Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, 29.

33 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 269.

34 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 281.

The Schelling & Hegel Tapes

I’m sharing some clips from a live video conference session a few days ago with students in my online course this semester, “Mind and Nature in German Idealism.”

Spring online course at – Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology

Auditors are welcome, though space is limited. Email me at for more information.

One of our core texts in this course will be my Physics of the World-Soul  (a new third edition soon to be published). PARP 6133 01

Back to teach at Schumacher College in April 2019: “The Evolution of Consciousness and the Cosmological Imagination”

I’ll be teaching another short course at Schumacher College in the UK the week of April 22nd-26th, 2019.

Here’s a link if you’re interested in registering:

Here’s what I’ll be teaching on:

“The Evolution of Consciousness and the Cosmological Imagination”

This week-long course will trace the evolution of consciousness in the West from ancient Greece through to the present. The goal is twofold: to understand the historical process whereby humanity severed itself from a meaningful universe and to re-ignite the cosmological imagination allowing us to reconnect to the soul of the world. The course begins by exploring Plato’s cosmology and theory of participation and moves on to consider the Scientific Revolution and the Romantic reaction to it. It concludes with a study of several contemporary efforts to re-enchant the cosmos by grounding human consciousness back in the more-than-human creative process responsible for generating it. In addition to Plato, the course draws upon the archetypal astronomy of Johannes Kepler, the Naturphilosophie of Goethe and Schelling, the nature poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth, the esoteric philosophy of Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield, the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, and the contemporary participatory theory of Jorge Ferrer.


*featured image above by Jakob Boehme

“From Final Knowledge to Infinite Learning, with Chaudhuri, Whitehead, and Deleuze”

Next weekend, CIIS is hosting a conference called “1968 Revisited.”

I’ll be presenting on a panel on Saturday, September 29th at 10am called “Pedagogy and Experimental Philosophy” with Jacob Sherman and Joshua Ramey (moderated by Debashish Banerji).

Below is a draft of my panel presentation, titled “From Final Knowledge to Infinite Learning, with Chaudhuri, Whitehead, and Deleuze.”

California Institute of Integral Studies was founded in 1968 by the integral philosopher Haridas Chaudhuri. Dr. Chaudhuri’s integral vision will function for me today as an invitation to re-envision education as an ongoing process whereby the the human and the cosmos are brought into ever-more intimate relation with one another:

“The more we understand the essential structure of the universe as a whole, the more we gain insight into the structure of [humanity]. The obverse is also true. The more we understand the essential structure of [the human], the more we gain insight into the unfathomable mystery of Being.” (The Evolution of Integral Consciousness, 85)

For the purposes of our panel on Experimental Philosophy and Pedagogy, I will interpret Dr. Chaudhuri’s insight in the following way: As integral philosophers, we must match our evolutionary cosmology with an evolutionary epistemology. And as integral educators, we must ground our epistemology in pedagogy. If we claim to know something as philosophers, how is it that we came to know it, and how are we to share and review this knowledge and our method of arriving at it with colleagues and with students? And as spiritual practitioners embedded in learning communities, how do we adapt our educational activities and our theory of learning to the fact of an ensouled, evolving cosmos? What is the purpose of the university in an evolutionary universe like ours?

In accepting Dr. Chaudhuri’s invitation to re-envision education in more integral terms, I turn for help to the philosophies of education of two other 20th century thinkers, Alfred North Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze. In what follows I summarize each of their perspectives and attempted answers to these questions.

Almost thirty years ago, Deleuze described the transition from a “disciplinary society” where individuals were ruled by “environments of enclosure”—factories, hospitals, schools, prisons, etc.—to a “control society” wherein power is no longer localized in institutions but distributed across networks. We now have more access to information than ever before, but our every move is tracked by increasingly invasive surveillance technologies. We are surrounded by screens whose media content is tailored specifically to our desires. Pop-up ads appear on our smartphone before we even become conscious of our desire for the product being sold to us. We are no longer free individuals, but nodes in vast corporate-owned relational databases. Questions of the fragility of human freedom and of liberal democracy have come to the fore. In a recent op-ed in The Guardian, Yuval Noah Harari argues that in this new context, the idea of liberal freedom, the foundation of the modern West’s political and educational institutions, is make-believe and must be discarded. What we put in its place is not entirely clear. If the individual freedom imagined by liberalism has become an impossible fiction, how might we re-imagine our human potentials in the context of a new, more networked environment? How are educators to respond to this situation?

Whitehead articulated his pedagogical theory a century ago, when the coming collapse of disciplinary society was not yet fully apparent. Universities remained among the most powerful and important institutions in the world, a source of great hope for the future of the species. Times have changed, but his ideas for reforming education, which, as we will see, cannot be separated from his ideas for reforming metaphysics and cosmology, remain as relevant as ever. While at Harvard, he witnessed the founding of one of America’s first business schools. He suggested at the time that a great function awaiting American universities was to “civilize business” by cultivating “socially constructive” motives in business students. This, he hoped, would shape their motives such that the amassing of fortunes would be pursued not as an end in itself but as a means to the betterment of humankind. Things have not panned out as he’d hoped. As Deleuze put it in his essay on the rise of control societies, today’s schools have been delivered over to corporations to serve as perpetual training facilities. Their sole purpose is now to prepare children to join the workforce.

In our historical moment, Whitehead’s pedagogical theory serves as an act of resistance against the corporate takeover of education. His theory is motivated by two related premises: (1) students are alive, and (2) the purpose of education is to stimulate and guide their self-development. Such development would naturally feed the growth of the species as a whole. But not only that. For Whitehead, “social construction” is not just a human activity, it is the aim of the universe, which is to say it functions at all levels—physical, biological, psychological, and even theological—to further the evolutionary adventure of cosmogenesis. Education works on our motives, builds our values. It is not just about memorizing rules, facts, and figures, and certainly, it is not just about job training. It is about intensifying our capacity to consciously participate in the realization of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Whitehead’s theory of education is a protest against dead knowledge and inert ideas. Inert ideas are merely received into the mind without having been tested, utilized, or brought into fresh combination. Education in inert ideas is not only useless, it is harmful. It assumes that the human mind is a dead instrument awaiting information, an assumption that ends up forming dead minds. Learning often requires rigor but should never become a chore. Learning is intrinsically enjoyable because the general ideas it engenders in us can bring understanding of that stream of events which pours through our life, which is our life. “There is only one subject-matter for education,” Whitehead tells us, “and that is Life in all its manifestations.”

Whitehead describes education as a recurring cycle of romantic allurement, precise specialization, and free generalization. “We should banish the idea of a mythical, far-ff end of education,” he tells us. Education is not only a life-long but an infinite task. In Whitehead’s universe, if there is to be any immortality, it is only through profound education that we might become adequate to it. There is no final system to memorize because we do not inhabit a finished cosmos. Ours is a cosmogenesis. Whitehead’s novel process-relational ontology, ensouled cosmology, and imaginative pedagogical theory all arose together out the revolutions in 20th century mathematics and physics. The material world is not determined by eternal laws. The fact of the matter is that matter is an act. Which is not to say that it is an illusion; rather, matter is the result of an ongoing expressive activity. Here it becomes clear that Whitehead’s theory of education cannot be separated from his process-relational ontology. He is no idealist or “social constructionist,” as this term is usually understood; for him, construction is a cosmological activity rooted in a creative principle that precedes human beings and that we participate in. It follows that education is a cosmic activity, something the universe is doing through us, and simultaneously something that we as conscious beings are doing to the universe. As the Romantic philosopher-poet Novalis put it, “our vocation is the education of the earth.”

There is no end to education. It is an infinite task. Whitehead thus believed education should coincide with the cultivation of a reverence for the eternal present. “The present contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and it is the future.” “The foundation of reverence is this perception, that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity” (The Aims of Education).

In 1968, Deleuze published Difference and Repetition, a text that attempts to transform Kant’s transcendental method, which had claimed to provide a priori knowledge of the general form of all possible experience, into an initiatory approach to open-ended learning and concept creation that is responsive to actual occasions of experience. “It is from ‘learning,’” Deleuze tells us, “not from knowledge, that the transcendental conditions of thought must be drawn” (DR 166).

“When something occurs,” Deleuze and his coauthor Guattari elaborate elsewhere, “the self that awaited it is already dead, or the one that would await it has not yet arrived” (A Thousand Plateaus 198-199). There is thus, according to Deleuze, something both “fatal” and “amorous” about the learning process (DR 23). Education can be both destructive and productive of subjectivity. We are not the same subject before and after an occasion of learning. Learning is transformative.

Learning is thus more than mere imitation, more than a pre-established subject’s attempt to mirror a prefabricated knowledge. Imitation can be helpful in a secondary corrective way, but only after the learning process has already been initiated. How precisely this initiation occurs is difficult to spell out. Deleuze suggests that learning is instigated semiotically, by way of an encounter with signs. Learning is the interpretation of and response to signs, where the response does not resemble the sign but rather actively unfolds what is enveloped within it. We learn through differential repetition and not reproduction of the same, since each new encounter with a sign invokes a novel conceptual constellation in the learner aiming to unfold whatever the sign is enfolding. Deleuze gives the example of learning to swim: “the movements of the swimming instructor which we reproduce on the sand bear no relation to the movements of the wave, which we learn to deal with only by grasping the former in practice as signs” (DR 23). Learning is as much a practical sensory-motor task as it is an intellectual or theoretical one. We learn only by transforming ourselves, body and soul. In learning, we are always becoming something else. Our faculties are pushed beyond their limits and forced to overcome themselves, synesthetically spilling into one another. Thinking conceives problems whose solutions can only be kinesthetically enacted (e.g., learning to swim), just as sensation presents problems whose solutions can only be thought (e.g., a child’s first encounter with a mirror). Thoughts become sensible; sensations become thinkable. Thus, Deleuze tells us, “learning always takes place in and through the unconscious, thereby establishing the bond of a profound complicity between nature and mind” (DR 165).

As with Whitehead’s thought, Deleuze’s pedagogical insights cannot be separated from his metaphysical and epistemological innovations. Deleuze laments the way the philosophic tradition has tended to subordinate the learning process to the product of knowledge. Learning has been treated as a mere means, an intermediary leading us from ignorance toward its final cause: wisdom. The learner is likened to a rat in a maze, where the end goal is predetermined rather than needing to be invented anew in each pedagogical participant’s encounter with a problematic field. Learning intercedes only because the supposedly simple a priori essence of knowledge cannot be immediately recollected. For this orthodox philosophical tradition, it would be preferable if knowledge were transparently available from the start. Even Hegel, whose Phenomenology of Spirit recounts the “extraordinary apprenticeship” of the learning process, nonetheless ends up subordinating this process to the absolute knowledge produced at the end. Deleuze points to Plato as an exception, as he is a transitional figure in the history of philosophy who, despite being tempted by the traditional dogmatic image of thought, still insisted that learning is an infinite rather than a merely preparatory task. Learning is for Plato the true transcendental condition of thought. Learning is initiatory, but not in a merely preparatory way. The initiatory trial of learning is always ongoing, always requiring the differential repetition of what has been learned: never the rote application of rules but always the novel unfolding of signs. Each wave is unique, requiring creative kinesthetic responses from our embodied minds. A seasoned surfer has not mastered the application of universal rules, but has become familiar with the profound synchronicity that unconsciously binds their bodily movements to the ocean’s rhythms.

What is education becoming in today’s networked control society? What is the role of the university in our increasingly imperiled planetary civilization? These are huge questions that I cannot pretend to have answered today. If universities are going to be vaporized into virtual campuses, can so-called “online education” successfully enact the integral pedagogical approach briefly explored here? I don’t know, but there are at least some positive signs.

Universities have long been driven by the desire to preserve and pass on the flame of knowledge won by past luminaries. This remains a noble and important responsibility, but perhaps today our most urgent task as university educators is to inspire hope by imagining and working to build futures worth living in. However, in so doing we must also cultivate a reverence for the present, for the eternal moment, for we can never leave this moment as if to inhabit some past golden age or future utopia. Integral philosophers like Chaudhuri, Whitehead, and Deleuze invite us to inhabit the profound and generative mystery of the learning process here and now. Everywhere and always learning remains an infinite task. Integral education is a life-long practice of participation in the creative energy of the cosmos. There is no final exam, though as Deleuze as well as Socrates and Plato knew, part of this participation is also learning to die. If education is preparation for anything we can only say that it is preparation for death. And the best way to prepare to die is to discover the best way of living well. This is the end that education should serve.

The search for final knowledge becomes a practice of infinite learning when knowing is placed back in the context of the eternal cosmic (re)cycle of life (and death). The human mind is not an instrument to be sharpened, a wax tablet to be informed, or a bird cage to be tamed. Each mind is rather a unique living personality seeking creative expression. Life itself is fundamentally a process of learning. It is creative rhythm, differential repetition, fractal reproduction. Life syncs with death, as death beats bodies into form, generating by eliminating what does not serve the growth of Life. Learning is the he(art) of Life.


Works Cited

Chaudhuri, H. (1977). The evolution of integral consciousness. Wheaton IL: Theosophical Publishing House.

Deleuze, Gilles. (1968/1994). Difference and Repetition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. (Winter, 1992). “Postscript on the Societies of Control” in October, Vol. 59, pp. 3-7.

Deleuze, Gilles. Felix Guattari. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Whitehead, Alfred North. (1929). The Aims of Education. New York: The Free Press.

Schumacher College summer course update: “Physics of the World-Soul”

Schumacher College has decided to make my week on Schelling and Whitehead a stand alone course called “Physics of the World-Soul.” It will take place June 18-22. More information available at the link above.