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.

“Retrieving Realism: A Whiteheadian Wager” published in IJTS

Retrieving Realism: A Whiteheadian Wager (PDF)

Published in International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Volume 36, Issue 1 (2017)

Abstract: This essay argues that the organic realism of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) provides a viable alternative to anti-realist tendencies in modern and postmodern philosophy since Descartes. The metaphysical merits of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism are unpacked in conversation with Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor’s recent book Retrieving Realism (2015). Like Dreyfus and Taylor, Whitehead’s philosophical project was motivated by a desire to heal the modern epistemic wound separating soul from world in order to put human consciousness back into meaningful contact with reality. While Dreyfus and Taylor’s book succeeds in articulating the problem cogently, its still too phenomenological answer remains ontologically unsatisfying. Whitehead’s process-relational approach invites philosophy to move closer to a real solution.

The Place of Life in the Cosmos (draft of 11th International Whitehead Conference paper)

Below is the draft of a paper I’ll present at next week’s International Whitehead Conference in the Azores. Feedback appreciated!


2017 International Whitehead Conference  

Matthew T. Segall

 

The Place of Life in the Cosmos: Feeling the Origin of Organism

 

“A philosophic outlook is the very foundation of thought and of life. The sort of ideas we attend to, and the sort of ideas which we push into the negligible background, govern our hopes, our fears, our control of behavior. As we think, we live. This is why the assemblage of philosophic ideas is more than a specialist study.  It moulds our type of civilization” —Whitehead (Modes of Thought, 87).

“The doctrine I am maintaining is that neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of ‘really real’ things whose interconnections and individual characters constitute the universe.”—Whitehead (Modes of Thought, )

“We must conceive the Divine Eros as the active entertainment of all ideals, with the urge to their finite realization, each in its due season. Thus a process must be inherent in God’s nature, whereby [God’s] infinity is acquiring realization.” —Whitehead (Adventures of Ideas, 277)

“To dismiss love as the biologic basis of social life, as also the ethical implications of love, would be to turn our back on a history as living beings that is more than 3.5 billion years old. We may resist the notion of love in a scientific reflection because we fear for the objectivity of our rational approach. Yet…such fear is unfounded. Love is a biological dynamic with deep roots. It is an emotion that defines in the organism as a dynamic structural pattern, a stepping stone to interactions that may lead to the operational coherences of social life.” —Maturana and Varela (The Tree of Knowledge, 248)

 

This paper has been prepared for the “Whitehead and biology” track, but I will argue that a proper understanding of biology requires situating it, not only in relation to physics, but also in relation to psychology, anthropology, and indeed, theology. The universe, Whitehead recognized, does not come neatly packaged into the disciplinary silos of the modern research university. In addition to the cosmological scope of his organic realism, Whitehead also recognized the need for what today we might refer to as a participatory approach[1] to studying the universe. The other thinkers I draw into conversation with Whitehead in this essay, including Friedrich Schelling, Hans Jonas, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Robert Rosen, are similarly participatory or enactive in orientation, as they recognize that, as Aaran Gare put it, “scientists must see themselves as part of the world they are striving to understand.”[2] We are participants within the creative cosmos we are studying, participants who are actively contributing to or retarding the ongoing evolutionary adventure of cosmogenesis. What there is to be known is reciprocally bound up with the way that we attempt to know it. According to Varela and Maturana, ignoring this intimate connection isolates the human knower from the living world he or she is trying to know, as though “knowledge” existed in some transcendental realm beyond or before our concrete experience of embodied action in Nature: “to disregard the identity between cognition and action, not to see that knowing is doing…is not to see human beings as living entities.”[3] It is not only in biology, psychology, and anthropology that researchers must become attuned to the interactive effects their own methods and attitudes have on the subjects of their study. The same attunement is required in physics and in theology. I will argue that a proper understanding of the place of life in the cosmos requires a way of studying Nature and even God that places ourselves within what we are trying to study (i.e., an endophysics and an endotheology). Whitehead allows us to see that even God lacks a “God’s eye view.” “There is an essence to the universe,” Whitehead tells us, “which forbids relationships beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality.”[4] To rationally study the cosmos, then, is not to study it “objectively,” as if “from outside,” but rather to study it relationally, as we embodied minds find ourselves always in media res “in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.”[5] There is, in Maturana and Varela’s words, an “unbroken coincidence of our being, our doing, and our knowing,” such that “every act of knowing brings forth a world” and “everything we do is a structural dance in the choreography of coexistence…We have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth[6]

 

Life: Special Anomaly or Generic Principle?

With the founding of the modern, secular research university, biologists have for the most part come to approach life as an object of neutral scientific investigation.[7] But now that the existential threat of planetary ecological collapse has dawned on our species, the study of life can no longer remain a merely theoretical affair. It must also become an ethical and spiritual concern of central importance to everything we do. Modern humans have technologically transformed the planet at every scale we are capable of measuring, forever altering the complex feedback loops that integrate geological, chemical, meteorological, and biological processes into a self-regulating Gaian superorganism. Our species now finds itself in a rather paradoxically tragic situation: humans, originally creatures of Earth, have created a second Nature, an artificial Earth that we thought made first Nature passive before our economic projects. Moderns assumed first Nature would patiently endure modern, industrial progress, but alas, we are witnessing “Gaia’s revenge” (Lovelock): our presumed status as creators is being rudely revoked as we realize we are just as vulnerable to extinction as any other of Earth’s creatures.

A properly cosmological and participatory study of organisms has now become a matter of life and death, something that of course still requires plenty of theorization, but which can no longer be approached in a disinterested or objective way (if it ever truly could be). The question, “What is life?,” is itself a rather recent invention in the history of humanity’s inquiries into the nature of things. Jonas argued that the inverse question, “What is death?” preceded it by many millennia. Primal people perceived the blooming, buzzing world around them as incontrovertibly animated, ensouled. They felt embedded within a generative cycle, wherein death surely existed, but as an interval between life and rebirth, rather than as life’s complete and utter annihilation. Jonas thus suggested that “panpsychism,” or the view that the world is alive, “is really the most natural view.”[8] “To the extent that life is accepted as the primary state of things, death looms as the disturbing mystery. Hence the problem of death is probably the first to deserve this name in the history of thought.”[9] All culture—all religion, art, science, and technology, and indeed our very humanness—may be a result of our becoming conscious of and responding to the problem of death. Our sense of who we are as human organisms and the driving force of all our meaning-making endeavors may be rooted in a desire to overcome the contradiction of death by somehow integrating it into the more primary process of life. Every human society, primal or modern, to the extent that it remains viable finds some cultural means of integrating death back into the life process.

Archaeological anthropologists know for sure they are dealing with human remains when they find them buried in graves. Burying the dead, preparing them for an afterlife of some kind, appears to be an essential feature of our species. Jonas describes the paradox by which the anomaly of death stood out for the primal, panpsychist imagination: “This is the paradox: precisely the importance of the tombs in the beginnings of mankind, the power of the death motif in the beginnings of human thought, testify to the greater power of the universal life motif as their sustaining ground.”[10] It was only after the Copernican revolution, according to Jonas, that the “proportional place of life in the scheme of things” began to be questioned. Prior to this cosmological displacement of the living Earth from the center of things, it had never occurred to human beings “that life might be a side issue in the universe,” rather than “its pervading rule.”[11] Galileo, Descartes, and Newton wielded the weapons of mathematical analysis to vanquish the central intuition of pre-modern cosmology—an indwelling World-Soul—thus ushering in a new world view, that of the clock-work universe designed by a transcendent demiurge. To the modern question, “What is life?,” came the modern answer: life is a mechanical corpse.[12]

Five hundred years later, the emergence of the Anthropocene—a perspective on our planet that is perhaps even more consequential than Copernicus’ revolution[13]—invites us to consider Jonas’ problem anew. It is no coincidence that just as we find ourselves entering the 6th great mass extinction event in Earth’s history, one which may claim our own species as one of its victims, philosophers are once again beginning to take seriously the prospect of panpsychism. Jonas was himself familiar enough with the Whiteheadian variety of panpsychism to remind his readers that taking the idea seriously does not mean setting aside centuries of scientific discovery by returning to Aristotelean physics.[14] Whitehead was led to articulate his philosophy of organism in the early 20th century because physics itself had begun to outgrow the old mechanical world-picture (e.g., no more “simple location” in absolute space, no more “nature at an instant” in durationless time, no more “laws” of physics imposed from eternity, etc.). Unfortunately, many biologists continue to conceive of the object of their study as a rare anomaly within the physical universe, a universe otherwise empty of value, devoid of purpose, and governed by randomly imposed laws. Organisms, while exceedingly complicated, are thus thought to be ultimately reducible to their simpler component parts. They appear to be animate agencies, but really organisms are just another lucky combination of atoms falling in the void (or genes falling through the fitness gradient), the orphaned children of randomness and law, of Monod’s chance and necessity. Biologists are wary of letting go of the mechanical metaphor, as to do so puts them at risk of being dismissed as unscientific Romantics by their colleagues.[15] Whitehead admitted that “the appeal to mechanism on behalf of biology was in its origin an appeal to the well-attested self-consistent physical concepts as expressing the basis of all natural phenomena”; “But,” he continues (writing in 1925), “at present there is no such system of concepts.”[16] Even Albert Einstein, in a letter written to nuclear physicist-turned-biologist Leo Szilard, admitted that it was in dealing with living things that he most felt the primitiveness of contemporary physics.[17] Robert Rosen refers to Einstein’s feeling about physics to amplify the feelings of another physicist-turned-biologist Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger’s hunch, elaborated in his famous essay What is Life?, was that the study of organisms would teach us a new physics.[18] In Rosen’s terms, the old physics, that of mechanistic reductionism, was not generic enough to account for living organisms:

organisms, far from being a special case, an embodiment of more general principles or laws we believe we already know, are indications that these laws themselves are profoundly incomplete. The universe described by these laws is an extremely impoverished, nongeneric one, and one in which life cannot exist. In short, far from being a special case of these laws, and reducible to them, biology provides the most spectacular examples of their inadequacy. The alternative is not vitalism, but rather a more generic view of the scientific world itself, in which it is the mechanistic laws that are the special cases.[19]

Rosen’s theoretical biology, when allied with Whitehead’s process philosophy, re-establishes a place for the organism not only in biological science, which has contented itself too long with reductionistic methods, but in physics, too. Rosen’s theory of life’s place in the cosmos hearkens back to the intuition of another kindred thinker, Friedrich Schelling:

the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists.[20]

 

Toward an Organic Ontology

Schelling, who Gare has pegged as a process philosopher rather than an idealist,[21] developed his organic Naturphilosophie in the wake of Kant’s transcendental critique of metaphysics. Organism, for thinkers like Schelling, Whitehead, and Rosen, must be understood not as a special kind of entity contingently emergent from an inorganic Nature, but rather as a universal speculative principle characterizing Nature at both micro- and macrocosmic scales.[22] Organism functions as a mediating concept integrating the modern dualisms of such seeming opposites as process v. substance, identity v. relationality, and body v. mind. In Kant’s Critique of Judgment, the dualism between Nature and freedom running throughout his system approached but did not finally achieve resolution in the idea of organism. Unlike merely mechanical Nature, which Kant argued could be understood according to efficient causes alone, living Nature displays a form of organization that remains inscrutable without the application of formal and final causation. A living organism is an incarnating idea working to maintain the rule of the whole over the parts (in this, organisms are analogous to Reason itself). Kant famously argued that mechanistic physics could never in principle explain the internal possibility of organic, that is, self-organizing, beings:

So certain is this that we may boldly state that it is absurd…to hope that perhaps some day another Newton might arise who would explain to us, in terms of natural laws…how even a mere blade of grass is produced (the ‘Newton of the leaf’).[23]

Kant was in the end unable to overcome the epistemological dualism between conceptually determined phenomena and unknowable noumena that shaped his transcendental method. He thus applied organism merely as a regulative principle of human judgment, unwilling to posit it as constitutive of Nature itself. He thought applying the concept in a constitutive way would require genius of a scientific sort, which he regarded as impossible. Only artists could attain the status of genius, according to Kant. Artists create art through intuitively participating in the creativity of organic Nature, expressing form by intuitively leaping to its wholeness without having to assemble it out of separate parts. In contrast, the reflective and objectifying mind of the scientist, transcendentally cut off from the living organization of the natural world, can only study and conceptually describe organisms piecemeal as dead mechanisms.

Schelling followed the spiritual potential if not the dead letter of Kant’s third critique by articulating an intuitive science capable of knowing organism as constitutive of Nature. According to Schelling, “the less merely reflective [that is, objectifying] thought we give Nature, the more comprehensibly it speaks to us.”[24] Schelling re-imagined Kant’s Critique of Judgment as a new inauguration of the transcendental method, releasing philosophy from the dualistic determinations and duties of pure and practical reason by rooting it instead in the aesthetic feelings of living organization. Philosophy, for Schelling, became “nature itself philosophizing/autophusis philosophia.”[25] Rather than the categories of transcendental logic, Schelling saw living Nature as a priori. His question was no longer “What must mind be such that knowledge of phenomenal Nature is possible?,” but “What must real Nature be for a knowing mind to have emerged from it?” Toward the end of his life, despite his own best efforts, Schelling had to admit that feeling, “the so-called inner sense of the emotions and the changes that take place within ourselves…still very much needs a critique.”[26] Whitehead’s philosophy of organism took up Schelling’s task: “to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason.”[27] The few pages Kant devotes to this in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” are, according to Whitehead, “a distorted fragment of what should have been his main topic.”

There is an intimate connection between such a critique of feeling and the construction of an organic or panpsychist cosmology. Though the essence of life cannot be known in a logically determinate way (i.e., what Rosen refers to as a Turing-machine simulable way[28]), it can be felt intuitively in our own experience of being alive, of being a living being among other living beings. In his earliest writings on the philosophy of Nature (~1797), Schelling wrote:

So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living Nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from Nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.[29]

The modern, mechanistic world-picture, which physics itself has outgrown, nonetheless continues to shape the imagination of many biologists. Biological organisms are understood to be reducible to their mechanical parts, as though living things are not really alive, but rather amount to little more than highly improbable chemical reactions. From Rosen’s perspective, the collapse of mechanistic cosmology means we must dispense with the idea that

the gradient from simplicity to complexity is only a matter of accretion of simple, context-independent parts, and the analysis of more complex systems is merely a matter of inverting the accretions that produced them.[30]

Instead, in Whitehead  terms, we must “reverse the process” typical of reductionistic explanation by construing the evolutionarily earlier forms of physical organization by analogy to the later, biological forms.[31] There is now a new “physics of irreversible, non-equilibrium processes,”[32] as Ilya Prigogine described it, allowing biologists to re-imagine organisms, not as dead machines, nor as machines imbued with an immaterial “vital force,” but completely natural, thermodynamically open, historically emergent, and irreducibly complex[33] energetic events. It turns out that such self-organizing energetic events pervade the physical universe (e.g., atoms, stars, galaxies, etc.). This is what I take Rosen to mean when he says complex self-organization is generic and not specific. Following Whitehead’s analogical reversal of the typical form of evolutionary explanation, if biological organisms are alive, then ontological coherence requires that physical and chemical events also be understood as already somehow lively:

Science is taking on a new aspect which is neither purely physical, nor purely biological. It is becoming the study of organisms. Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.[34]

Organisms at every scale, whether particle, astrophysical, or biological, are precariously poised on thermodynamic gradients, surfing inner depths of feeling and lured by erotic potencies toward ever-more intense modes of existence. We might then say that ecology—the study of organisms and their co-evolutionary dynamics—should replace physics as the most generic science.

 

Whither Panpsychism?

Whitehead’s organic realism is not without its critics, even among those who sympathize with major aspects of his project. Jonas, despite stating that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism

is the only rational alternative open to naturalism after the loss of the transcendental counterpole provided by dualistic metaphysics, in whose shelter alone an unadulterated ‘materialism’ in physics was rationally possible,

nonetheless remained concerned that Whitehead’s panpsychism leaves no room for the reality of death because it denies “the deep anxiety of biological existence” by telling “a story of intrinsically secured success.”[35] Contrary to Jonas, I do not believe Whitehead’s metaphysics is just another elaborate denial of death. Whitehead’s panpsychism, on his own account, “is entirely neutral on the question of immortality,” understood in its traditional Christian sense as a personal afterlife.[36] His account of biological organisms fully acknowledges that such complex forms of organization are fragile and dependent upon the “patience” of their environment for their enduring stability.[37] Whitehead doesn’t simply establish life as the foundation of existence; rather, his dipolar account of process in terms of subjective immediacy and superjective immortality could be described as affirming the life-death-rebirth cycle itself as the central cosmic mystery.[38] Jonas’ fascination with Heidegger’s existential phenomenology is not misplaced: Dasein’s being-toward-death is indeed constitutive of our being human. Death opens us to the heart of Being. Whitehead’s unapologetic return to metaphysics is not necessarily in conflict with Heidegger’s turn toward Existenz, since he engages in philosophical speculation not in order to master or cover over death, as ontotheology does, but instead to seek some reconciliation between life and death via a coherent account of their integration in and as creative process, or what he termed Concrescence. Whitehead described an actual occasion’s concrescence in terms of three cumulative phases of feeling: first, the creative intensity of many objectively given past actualities initiates a new actual occasion or throb of experience; second, this occasion seeks its own form of aesthetic satisfaction in an immediately enjoyed presentation of the objective manifold by unifying this manifold into its own unique subjective perspective on the universe; finally, the occasion, having achieved satisfaction of its subjective aim toward unity, perishes into superjective immortality, becoming another objective expression to be prehended in the concrescence of subsequent throbs of experience. This process, whereby “the many become one, and are increased by one,”[39] is iterated endlessly “to the crack of doom.”[40] 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.[41] It is the miracle whereby actual occasions perpetually perish “and yet live for evermore.”[42] Note that while Whitehead’s ontological account of concrescence does include a kind of “immortality,” this should not be confused with the distinct, cosmological question of the status of the ontogeny of individual biological organisms after death. As mentioned above, Whitehead philosophy of organism is decidedly neutral on the question of ontogenetic or personal immortality.[43]

But it cannot be denied that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of some modern and much postmodern philosophy. For Whitehead, beauty is the teleology of the universe. The concrescence of each actual occasion is goaded toward beauty by an indwelling Divine Eros. This Eros, also called the “primordial nature of God,” is inherited by the initial feelings of each occasion. But because actual occasions are still self-creative, the Divine Eros cannot determine the direction of Nature’s creative advance. Rather, by contributing to the initial phase of each concrescent occasion a graded envisagement of Creativity’s infinite value-potential as relevant to its finite situation, the Divine Eros lures occasions toward more intense actualizations of value-experience or beauty. Such actualizations are never assured, and any achievement of order is accomplished amidst a background of chaos that is forever threatening to shipwreck the endeavor. Whitehead rejects as fallacious the narrow religious conception of the universe as determined by some final order imposed by a transcendent, omnipotent God.[44]

Despite its reformed, evolutionary character, Jonas, Varela, and Thompson do not go as far as affirming the cosmic teleology of Whitehead’s panpsychism. They restrict the scope of teleology to biological phenomena, arguing for a kind of immanent purposiveness at work at least in the self-production and sense-making of individual living organisms down to the level of single cells. Self-production or autopoiesis is said to differentiate an organism from an “indifferent physicochemical” environment, while sense-making turns this environment into a world of “biological significance.”[45] They allow teleology entrance into nature only through the emergent centers of “concern” and need whereby biological organisms “affirm and reaffirm [themselves] in the face of not-being.”[46]

Jonas, Varela, and Thompson here oppose the “otherwise neutral events” of external physics and chemistry governed by deterministic laws to the “internal norms” of biological organisms.[47] Biological organisms, as sense-making, self-producing beings, are not posited as by any means exempt from the laws by which science understands the physical world, but nonetheless they are thought to add something not found in or entailed by these laws. From Thompson’s perspective, the new sciences of complexity, unavailable in Kant’s day, allow contemporary theoretical biologists to grasp this extra something in a more rational, scientific way.[48] Jonas, Varela, and Thompson thus go further than Kant in affirming immanent teleology as constitutive of at least biological organisms.

Thompson (a former student of Varela’s and the only living member of this triad) has followed one line of the post-Kantian tradition’s development through Husserl to its culmination in Merleau-Ponty’s embodied phenomenology. He also draws on Jonas’ discussion of biological space and time, which is in effect an evolutionary extension of Kant’s transcendental aesthetic beyond the human to the subjectivity of biological organisms. Whitehead, on the other hand, tried to go back to Kant and invert his founding principles. As I’ve shown, Whitehead’s process-relational ontology is an attempt to construct a critique of pure feeling in place of Kant’s critique of pure Reason. Something very similar ended up happening within the Kantian tradition itself, not just via Schelling, but via Merleau-Ponty, whose late ontology of the flesh could be described as a transition from Kantian disembodied reason as epistemically foundational (with ontology bracketed) to embodied feeling as the ground of knowledge and existence. Perhaps Schelling, Whitehead, and the embodied phenomenologists end up converging in the end.[49] Nonetheless, Thompson remains suspicious of claims that the relations between even the most microscopic physical events are somehow experiential. He worries that this sort of speculative claim overshoots the transcendental limitations Kant placed on human knowing.[50] I am compelled to follow Whitehead, however, in seeing Kant as having prematurely limited our intuitive capacity to participate in Nature’s inner life.[51] Whitehead, perhaps with Kant or some of his transcendentalist inheritors in mind, rejected “the philosophic tradition” which has it that “there are set limitations for human experience, to be discovered in a blue-print preserved in some Institute of Technology.” He grants the usual limitations set by the social habits that happen to be dominant in each epoch, and by the difficulty of verbally expressing, and thus recalling or communicating, unusual experiences; but in principle he cannot “discern any reason, apart from dogmatic assumption, why any factor in the universe should not be manifest in some flash of human consciousness.”[52] After all, though the task be difficult, the main task of philosophy is precisely that of translating into language what such flashes of insight reveal about the nature of the penumbral background encompassing our normal consciousness. In this way, philosophy strives to increase the generality of our metaphysical categories beyond their applicability to the tables and tea cups of our everyday experience. Hidden in ordinary experience, continues Whitehead,

there is always the dim background from which we derive and to which we return. We are not enjoying a limited dolls’ house of clear and distinct things, secluded from all ambiguity. In the darkness beyond there ever looms the vague mass which is the universe begetting us.[53]

The normally dim background of our embodied experience, that which our sensitive membranes are supposed to put us in touch with, is evidently not a mere neutral “not-being.” Whitehead beseeches us not to be too quick to artificially limit our capacity to experience the deeper causal vectors animating the cosmic life from which we derive and to which we return.

Despite its tendency to impose such limits, there remains much that is of value in the transcendental orientation, particularly when it has been transformed into embodied phenomenology. Thompson’s approach invites reductionists to become more reflexive about how their objective way of knowing brings forth a specific, limited domain of significance, a domain wherein only the mechanical aspects of living phenomena are detectable, and wherein all value, meaning, and purpose evaporates from view. By epistemically ruling out a “feeling for the organism”[54] as unscientific, mechanistic biologists become numb to the physical purposes at work within the living processes of Nature. If, as Thompson puts it, “empathy is a precondition of our comprehension of the vital order,” where empathy means the “spontaneous and involuntary resonance of two living bodies with each other,”[55] then knowing the living interiority of Nature requires coming to aesthetically resonate with it, to sense it, or sense with it, from the inside out. Whitehead, like Schelling, arrived at his organic realism by inverting Kant’s transcendental idealism so that intuitive feeling and aesthesis came to ground conceptual reflection and Reason.[56] “The reaction of our own nature to the general aspect of life in the universe”[57] is thus the primary experiential datum of and epistemological justification for Whitehead’s metaphysics.

Thompson agrees that a more generic view of nature than the mechanical one is possible. In his more recent work, he has pursued a post-physicalist, non-dualist perspective, arguing that “physical being and experiential being imply each other [and] derive from something that is neutral between them.”[58] He explicitly leaves the door open to panpsychism and neutral monism and suggests they may have advantages over neurophysicalist reductionism.[59] Neutral monism is a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had an important influence on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of a “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s panexperientialism. But how can something “neutral” give birth to a creative cosmos of living organisms? It is this problem that led Whitehead to generalize the insights of James’ radically empirical psychology (which has much in common with embodied phenomenology) into a panpsychist cosmology. If experience goes all the way down, the challenge is to find some description general enough to avoid anthropomorphism but vectored and telic enough to still count as experiential. Whitehead threads the needle with his concept of prehension. Physical prehensionality, where memory and anticipation are present already in germ, thus becomes the precursor of biological intentionality (which itself is the precursor of conscious reflection).[60] There is thus no neutral reality: for Whitehead, to be real is already to be the realization of some modicum of value, as “aesthetic attainment is interwoven in the texture of realization.”[61]

 

Placing Life Back in the Cosmos

There are clear parallels between Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and the new paradigms of theoretical biology put forward by thinkers like Jonas, Rosen, Varela, and Thompson. There are also important differences regarding physical ontology, panpsychism, and the proper scope of teleology. My main motivation for bringing these thinkers into conversation with Whitehead is to lure those already critical of the idea that mechanistic reductionism offers an adequate account of life into the more constructive project of imagining a viable metaphysical alternative. If living organization is taken seriously and given its proper place in the cosmos as ontologically generic, then our scientific conception of the universe requires a thorough re-imagining. Organism must replace mechanism as the root image or cosmic metaphor guiding natural scientific investigation. Epistemologically, feeling (in the expanded, Whiteheadian sense) must be granted an enhanced status as our primary mode of relation to the life of the cosmos, such that a rational cosmology comes to mean the same thing as a relational one.

 

Endnotes

[1] See Jorge Ferrer’s Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (2001) or Participation and the Mystery (2017). See also Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, eds., The Participatory Turn (2008)

[2] Arran Gare, “Approaches to the Question ‘What is Life?’: Reconciling Theoretical Biology with Philosophical Biology” (2008), Cosmos and History Vol 4, No 1-2.

[3] The Tree of Knowledge, 248

[4] Process and Reality, 4

[5] Process and Reality, 50.

[6] The Tree of Life: The Biological Roots of Human Cognition by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (Shambala, 1998), 25-26.

[7] Under the political and economic conditions of late capitalism, theoretical understanding has itself largely taken a backseat to instrumental manipulation with an eye toward military applications or corporate profits.

[8] The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas (Northwestern University Press, 2001), 7.

[9] The Phenomenon of Life, 8.

[10] The Phenomenon of Life, 9.

[11] The Phenomenon of Life, 8-9.

[12] The mechanistic world-picture is rooted in a Faustian bargain, that where religious worship of God had apparently failed to defeat death, technological mastery of Nature might succeed. Ernest Becker famously argued that all human culture is ultimately in service to an elaborate “immortality project.” While pre-modern societies had religious means of achieving a sort of symbolic immortality, modern societies have replaced appeals to God with science and technology, which are, we are told by Ray Kurzweil and the Transhumanists, on the verge of providing us with real immortality. For Becker, both theologically and technologically oriented societies are driven by the same denial of death. Pre-moderns sought the shelter of the Church and the grace of the Mass to grant them some taste of transcendence, while moderns dream of terraforming Mars or, less grandiosely, surf Amazon and Facebook and through the miracle of transubstantiation turn data into a consumable goods. The “thoughtless Prometheanism” of modern techno-capitalism is for Becker only a turbocharged version of the premodern “immortality project.” It is rooted in the same “rage against our impotence, a defiance of our animal condition, our pathetic creaturely limitations” (The Denial of Death, The Free Press, 1975, 85).

[13] In Clive Hamilton’s terms, the Anthropocene marks the discovery of a new phenomenon hitherto unknown to science: “the appearance of this new object, the Earth System, has ontological meaning. It invites us to think about the Earth in a new way, an Earth in which it is possible for humankind to participate directly in its evolution by influencing the constantly changing processes that constitute it. It therefore brings out the conception of a joint human-earth story” (Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, 21).

[14] The Phenomenon of Life, 2. Though of course there is plenty to be gained through a careful study of many of The Philosopher’s ideas, Whitehead decisively rejects Aristotle’s substance-quality ontology in favor of a process-relational one.

[15] I would ask my scientific colleagues, perhaps already tempted to dismiss the panpsychist cosmology I am peddling, to provide me with even a single example of a scientific theory that does explanatory work without invoking metaphor. Quantum and relativistic phenomena are notoriously difficult to explain in common language, since they appear at first to do violence to our habitual ways of perceiving and conceiving of visible nature. Many modern physicalists therefore prefer to treat them as purely mathematical theories. I ask my scientific colleagues again, what is the meaning of a mathematical equation without that most powerful of metaphorical symbols, “=”?  See Logos of the Living Earth: Toward a Gaian Praxecology for more on the place of metaphor in science: https://footnotes2plato.com/2009/11/21/logos-of-a-living-earth-towards-a-gaian-praxecology/

[16] Science and the Modern World, 97.

[17] Quoted in Essays on Life Itself by Robert Rosen, 7.

[18] Essays on Life Itself by Rosen, 9.

[19] p. 33-34, Essays on Life itself, 2000

[20] On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 70.

[21] “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics” by Aaran Gare, Cosmos and History, Vol 7, no. 2, 2011.

[22] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 128-129, 215.

[23] Quoted by Rosen, Essays on Life Itself, 35.

[24] Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1988), 35.

[25] Quoted in Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 188.

[26] Grounding of Positive Philosophy, Schelling, 168.

[27] Process and Reality, 113.

[28] Essays on Life Itself by Robert Rosen, 268.

[29] Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 36.

[30] Essays on Life Itself, 36.

[31] The Function of Reason by Alfred North Whitehead, 15.

[32] The End of Certainty (1996) by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, 3.

[33] To be complex is not just to be “complicated,” but, in Rosen’s terms, to be noncomputable or nonsimulable (Essays on Life Itself, 17, 37).

[34] Science and the Modern World, 150.

[35] The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas, 96.

[36] Religion in the Making, 107.

[37] Science and the Modern World, 119.

[38] This mystery is affirmed in most primal world views, as well as in Vedic and Buddhist traditions. The Judeo-Christian tradition is rather unique in its denial of any form of rebirth, though there are exceptions (e.g., Origen, Rudolf Steiner). Thompson made the following comparison of panpsychist conceptions of creaturely death to Buddhist conceptions of death: “Panpsychism implies that, as an entirely natural matter of fact, aspects or elements of consciousness—not creature consciousness but more primitive or basal, constituent forms of consciousness—remain present after biological death. Indeed, the idea that creature consciousness at death undergoes a kind of phenomenal dissolution into constituent phenomenal elements—an idea central to Indian and Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of the dying process—may make more sense from a panpsychist perspective than from a neurophysicalist one” (“Response to Commentators on Waking, Dreaming, Being,” Philosophy East and West, Volume 66, Number 3, July 2016, 989. http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/phil567546.pdf).

[39] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

[40] Process and Reality, 228.

[41] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 85.

[42] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 351.

[43] One form of immortality an individual can possess is achieved through its participation in and contribution to the larger cosmic personality or the divine milieux which shelters its experience. In the end, Whitehead and Jonas converge rather intimately on the question of the possibility and nature of immortality. Indeed, Jonas was deeply influenced by Whitehead’s processual account of God’s relationship to the world (see The Life and Thought of Hans Jonas by Christian Wiese, p. 126). Interested readers should compare the final pages of The Phenomenon of Life in the chapter “Immortality and the Modern Temper” to Whitehead’s late essay “Immortality.”

[44] Process and Reality, 111.

[45] Thompson, Mind in Life, 153.

[46] Thompson, Mind in Life, 153.

[47] Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, 152-153.

[48] Mind in Life, 129.

[49] Hamrick and Van der Veken’s Nature and Logos argues as much

[50] Blog exchange on July 16, 2013: https://footnotes2plato.com/2013/07/16/phenomenology-and-ontology-merleau-ponty-whitehead-and-the-flesh-of-the-world/

[51] Even Kant, in his last writings before death (published as the Opus Postumum), acknowledged that we do have intuitive access to the interiority of nature, since we ourselves, as natural beings, have immediate access to our own interiority. Kant’s late re-consideration of the limitations his earlier critiques had placed on knowledge may have been a result of Schelling’s influence.

[52] Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Analysis of Meaning,” 134-135.

[53] Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Analysis of Meaning,” 132.

[54] Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, referring to Evelyn Fox Keller’s biography of biologist Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism (1984).

[55] Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, 165.

[56] I referred to this Schellingian-Whiteheadian reversal as “descendental” philosophy in my dissertation, Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead.

[57] Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Immortality,” 102.

[58] Waking, Dreaming, Being, 105.

[59] Thompson, “Response to Commentators on Waking, Dreaming, Being,” Philosophy East and West, Volume 66, Number 3, July 2016, 989. http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/phil567546.pdf

[60] For  more on the difference between prehensionality and intentionality, see my dissertation Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead, 143.

[61] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 94.

 

Toward a Communicative Cosmos: Whitehead and Media Ecology (updated draft)

Below is a draft of a paper I’ll offer at the MEA Convention in a few weeks. I share it here in the hopes that my readers may provide feedback that helps me improve it. I have something like 15 minutes to present as part of a panel on “Philosophical Perspectives,” so I’ll only be able to extemporaneously summarize the text below. I hope to submit some version of this paper to the Explorations in Media Ecology journal.


A Panel Presentation for the 18th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association

Convention theme: “Technology, Spirituality, Ecology”

Title: Toward A Communicative Cosmos: Whitehead and Media Ecology

Author: Matthew T. Segall, PhD

Affiliation: California Institute of Integral Studies

Contact: msegall@ciis.edu 

“…it is not to be wondered at, that there is nothing attributed unto Pan concerning loves, but only of his marriage with Echo. For the world or nature doth enjoy itself…but where there is enough there is no place left to desire. Therefore there can be no wanton love in Pan or the world, nor desire to obtain anything (seeing he is contented with himself) but only speeches…It is an excellent invention that Pan or the world is said to make choice of Echo only (above all other speeches or voices) for his wife: for that alone is true philosophy, which doth faithfully render the very words of the world; and it is written no otherwise than the world doth dictate, it being nothing else but the image or reflection of it, not adding anything of its own, but only iterates and resounds”
—Francis Bacon (The Essays, Or Councils, Civil and Moral [1718], 18)

“Not all communication is human communication. Animals and machines, atoms and the earth, the seas and the stars are themselves full of curious communications, and our efforts to have intelligence with such entities reform our own practices as well. A vision of communication committed to democracy cannot foreclose on entering into intelligence with radical otherness, including the earth, other species, machines, or extraterrestrial life.”
—John Durham Peters (“Space, Time, and Communication Theory”)

“We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.”
—Alfred North Whitehead (PR, 50)

 

In what follows, I draw upon Alfred North Whitehead’s organic cosmology in an attempt to expand the scope of media ecology beyond its ordinarily humanistic horizon. Neil Postman defined media ecology as the critical study of how media technologies envelope and form cultures. As McLuhan famously put it, “Man is an extension of nature that re-makes the nature that makes the man” (Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, 66). This definition of media ecology is premised on the idea that human beings have a foot in two different worlds: a natural or physical environment that includes our own living bodies, and a media environment that extends our embodied expressions into a non-material space of meaning. Each form of communication technology (e.g., speech, the alphabet, the printing press, radio, TV, the Internet, etc.) creates a surrogate nature, an artificial environment within which new cultures grow, sometimes deformed due to their alienation from and lack of resonance with original nature. Today, largely because of a lack of resonance, we find ourselves the late capitalist denizens of a planet in crisis. Geologists and Gaian physiologists tell us that we have entered the Anthropocene. Technological civilization, in its rush to establish a new and improved second nature on top of the first, has neglected to consider that first nature—the Earth—is not a mere stockpile of raw material waiting to fuel the growth and innovation of the human economy, but a complex and highly differentiated ecopoietic superorganism (see Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, 120-122). The planetary ecological crisis has made the modern theory of a bifurcated nature obsolete. Cultural productions and physical processes, perhaps once separable in thought, are now irrevocably entangled at a geochemical level. Our ability to understand and respond to the planetary ecological crisis may be aided by a truly ecological media ecology; by the idea, that is, that there is not just an analogical resonance between natural ecologies and media ecologies, but a cosmological community. Whitehead’s organic cosmology allows us to generalize media ecology’s focus on the medium instead of the message, such that the world itself is brought into view as a medium of communication. Perhaps such an imaginative generalization of media ecology into an ecological metaphysics or metaphysics of the medium can sensitize us to the primal logos of the cosmos.

This work is already well underway, carried forward by theorists including Jussi Parikka, John D. Peters, Mark B. N. Hansen, Adam Robbert, and Andrew Murphie. They each (especially the latter three) turn to Whitehead’s process-relational metaphysics in search of a more cosmological media ecology. Recognizing that humans represent only one of the cosmos’ many forms of communicative being, and that the storage, transmission, and transformation of meaning occurs at every scale from the quantum to the geological to the galactic, opens up new theoretical perspectives on and practical interventions into the study of media as environment and environment as media. In alignment with this conference’s theme, becoming conscious of a communicative cosmos has profound technological, ecological, and theological implications.

Part 1 makes the case for cosmologizing media theory beyond the study of human communication. Part 2 engages more specifically with Mark Hansen’s Feed Forward, arguing that his “inversion” of Whitehead is an unnecessary radicalization of an already radical theory of perception.

 

Part 1

McLuhan and Postman theorized media largely from an anthropocentric perspective (i.e., media as “extensions of man”). There is much to be learned from such a perspective. But it is not the only perspective from which to study media. Unlike Postman, with his prophet-like criticisms of new media’s deleterious effect on contemporary culture, McLuhan’s Catholic faith sometimes led him to offer a more theologically charged take on electronic media. He went so far as to suggest that what we now call the Internet may be the technological incarnation of the mystical body of Christ (of course, he also worried that electronic media were just Satan’s latest temptation). God has an important role to play in Whitehead’s media theory, as well, though less as a subject of religious worship than as a metaphysical principle providing coherence to his cosmological scheme. For Whitehead, God is that infinite actuality which introduces an ideal harmony or aesthetic order into the world, making cosmos out of chaos by providing the initial aim or erotic lure conditioning every creative act: God “is the mirror which discloses to every creature its own greatness” (RM, 139). Whitehead’s is an aesthetic theory of Being wherein God is the poet of the world.

McLuhan said of all media prior to electronic technologies that they were “extensions” or “prostheses” of the human being, but with the emergence of digital media and the Internet, an uncanny reversal seems to be occurring: the human is becoming an extension of media. According to McLuhan, we are ourselves being “translated into information” (UM, 57). Digital media have been characterized as “environmental,” “elemental,” and “atmospheric” because they surround and dissolve our classical conception of human agency. Data is now the most powerful weapon in the world, as the governments, corporations, and anonymous hackers who wield it have the ability to shape our collective perceptions and actions, even while we continue to believe we are individuals thinking for ourselves. The situation is decidedly double-edged: we have instantaneous access to more information about each other and the world than ever before in human history, but this information also has access to us.

Whether we call it the informational revolution, the technozoic era, or the Anthropocene, it is clear that our species has become a planetary force on par with supervolcanoes and meteorites. Just as this realization begins to dawn on us, media theorists are articulating a “non-anthropocentric, non-prosthetic, and radically environmental theory of media” (Hansen, FF, 250). Hansen, Murphie, and Robbert turn to Whitehead’s panpsychism in order to re-imagine the ontology of media as part of an effort to overcome the modern bifurcation of nature. The bifurcated theory of nature has it that nature is a soundless, scentless, colorless affair, with all experience and interpretation, all emotion and purpose, all value and agency, reserved for the human or at most the animal (and for some, for God). Media theory has tended to treat human perception as though it existed in an ontologically unique domain outside and above mere material existence: humans and their technologies do the mediating, while nature itself remains passively mediated. In protest against the bifurcation of nature, Whitehead articulated a radical account of perception, whereby the affective inheritance of our own just past bodily experience becomes analogous to all of nature’s causal transactions. Human temporality, even if stretched and intricately folded, is still continuous with cosmic temporality. For Whitehead, the ultimate concrete facts composing nature are non-conscious acts of perceptivity: to be actual is to be the achievement of a specific form of feeling, or what Whitehead refers to as a “prehension” (RM, 88, 91). Causal efficacy in nature is the transmission of an occasion of feeling from the settled past into the cresting wave of the present. Once an actual occasion’s present form has reached completion, its perceptivity perishes and it offers itself as an expression feeding the emergence of subsequent prehensive actualities. “Expression,” says Whitehead, “is the one fundamental sacrament…the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace…the recipient extends his apprehension of the ordered universe by penetrating into the inward nature of the originator of the expression. There is then a community of intuition by reason of the sacrament of expression proffered by one and received by the other” (RM, 118). Where McLuhan described the “miracle” whereby “in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world, because human perception is literally incarnation” (“Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters,” 82), Whitehead goes further by arguing that “Every event on its finer side introduces God into the world,” such that “the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself” (RM, 140). Expression and prehension are the systole and diastole movements of cosmic creativity, the call and response between God and the world. Every creature, whether atomic, galactic, biotic, or anthropic, is privy in various degrees to this conversation. McLuhan’s theological intuitions already offer media ecology one way beyond its ordinarily anthropocentric charter. But by accepting some version of the bifurcation of Nature, McLuhan falls short of the “becoming-cosmological of media” (Hansen, FF, 244) that is achieved by Whitehead. Media theory’s founding insight, that “the medium is the message,” must be translated into cosmology.

Adam Robbert offers one translation in the form of a “geocentric media ecology”: “Organisms are media ecologists enveloped by the media ecologies of other organisms…the Earth itself is not a passive ground upon which events unfold, but a medium that constrains and conditions the energetic cascade of organismic and ecosystemic development” (“Earth Aesthetics: Knowledge and Media Ecologies,” 6). Along similar lines, Jussi Parikka suggests that “the Earth as living creature communicates via the assembled resources it fashions and provides” (“The Geology of Media,” The Atlantic [Oct 11, 2013]). Parikka offers his own translation of “the medium is the message” into cosmology via a psychogeophysical inquiry into the memories of rocks, raising a dilemma “anyone deep into Alfred North Whitehead would find attractive”: “how do the soil, the crust, the rocks, and the geological world sense?” (A Geology of Media, 62-65. Emphasis mine). Such questions may seem odd at first, but they are an invitation to consider anew the ontological implications of the way natural sciences like geology and astronomy have taught us so much about the cosmos by treating it as a kind of recording medium.

In The Marvelous Clouds, John Durham Peters asks: “What if we took nature as the epitome of meaning rather than mind? What if the fecundity of meaning in nature provided our model of communication?” (MC, 380). Peters approaches the cosmologization of media theory by calling for an “infrastructural aesthetics” to replace both structuralism (the ambition to “explain the principles of thought…by way of a combinatorics of meaning”) and post-structuralism (“with its love of gaps, aporias, and impossibilities, its celebration of breakdown, yearning, and failure, its relish for preposterous categories of all kinds and love of breathless syntax”) (MC, 33). Infrastructural aesthetics lifts the taken for granted background of our human living and dying into the foreground, bringing that which habitual use and abuse has made imperceptible out from behind the veil and into view. Whitehead’s method of speculative philosophy could be described likewise, as for him metaphysics is the pursuit of those generalities so finely woven into the texture of our everyday experience that they become “obscured by their persistent exemplification” (PR, 5). “It requires a very unusual mind to undertake an analysis of the obvious” (SMW, 4), which perhaps explains why philosophy is such a rare vocation. But for Whitehead, philosophy must not become the enemy of habitual commonsense. Infrastructural ignorance has been an essential component of our species’ uniquely powerful form of intelligence: “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them” (Intro to Math, 61). Instead, philosophy must deploy the method of “imaginative rationalization” (PR, 5) to seek out and make explicit the unacknowledged cosmological presuppositions that provide justification for our civilized commonsense. Infrastructural aesthetics is the effort to bring to light the vibrant materiality of the medium underlying the ephemerality of the messages it conveys. It is the effort to unearth the way the ground we walk on supports and enables our understanding of media, our communicative capacity, our consciousness, and our very being: “Ontology, whatever else it is,” says Peters, “is usually just forgotten infrastructure” (MC, 38). In a discussion of Einsteinian cosmology, Peters refers to the way “infrastructural warps can be embraced as epistemic sources” (MC, 364). In other words, the red shift and gravity lensing detected in ancient/distant light signals tells us something important about the universe. Distortions in these cosmic messages, far from ruining our ability to decipher their meaning, communicate something significant to us about the medium of space-time itself: “…light is not simply a signal carrier, but the basis of the universe’s structure—not just message but being…Time, the universe’s key dimension, is tied to signal velocity, and ontology is bound by the finitude of communication” (MC, 366, 368).

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism allows a radical new possibility to become thinkable, that the world can be re-imagined as a medium because the cosmos is itself composed of communicative processes at every scale. The world itself has always been, in Whitehead’s terms, “a medium for the transmission of influences” (PR, 286). “Ironically,” writes Andrew Murphie, “the idea that there’s too much mediation (a world over-run by media which would otherwise run smoothly) leads media theory and practice astray,” since, as Whitehead’s philosophy reveals, “We have too small a concept of mediation” (“The World as Medium,” 11n11).

Cosmologizing media theory means finally, decisively, letting go of the Cartesian-Kantian framework that extends mere matter forever beyond a meaning intending mind. “Nature abounds in meaning,” says Peters, “most of which we have no idea how to read or even acknowledge that it is there. There is an exquisite pattern in DNA and the neurons of sea slugs, in photons and the red shift, in the bonds of the carbon atom and the fortuitously odd behavior of water…There is clear intelligence of some kind in planetary, physiological, and genetic feedback loops. We…should understand intelligence at all scales, as the dynamic, restless, inarticulate genius of life-forms evolving in their environments…with human brain intelligence just one glorious outpost of organic evolution” (MC, 381).

Such a scale-free conception of intelligence requires a more general theory of communication (indeed, a more general general semantics!) than that which supposes the paradigm case of communication is one human mind trying to convey a thought to another. With a truly (and not just metaphorically) ecologized media theory, we can come to see the prehuman world was always already a medium for the transmission of “data.” Humans are not just now being transformed into information by digital media; like the universe, we were always already made of self-interpreting information. For Whitehead, a bit of information, a datum, is a “potential for feeling” (PR, 88), and every potential seeks satisfaction through actualization in an occasion of experience.

There is much that remains to be unpacked, but my time is short. I can only end by offering a plea to media theorists to join Whitehead’s protest against the bifurcation of nature. Contrary to McLuhan’s argument that languaging humans are unique among biological organisms in that we “[possess] an apparatus of transmission and transformation based on [our] power to store experience” (UM, 59), Whitehead’s organic cosmology invites us to recognize that the transmission and transformation of experience is the very basis of causal connection throughout the universe. Human language is just a further, loopier elaboration upon this cosmic capacity for communicative transaction. So to McLuhan I say, yes, there is a logos in the anthropos, there is a living God at the heart of our human perception and symbolism: a Spirit runneth through our alphabetic letters. But there is another logos: a logos of the cosmos. Thus the need for a cosmological media theory, not just an anthropological or theological one.

Part 2

Mark Hansen’s Feed Forward: On the Future of 21st Century Media (2015) is densely argued and full of important correctives to the anti- and post-human tendencies of many contemporary theorists. While he accepts the call for an anthrodecentric philosophy, Hansen does not seek to “eschew contact with humans” entirely, as though ontology could ever be completely purified of our existence (FF, 15). Rather, he aims to “resituate,” “intensify,” and even “enhance” human experience by bringing it back into contact with the “causally efficacious lineages that have produced it” (FF, 9, 15). As we become increasingly immersed in and saturated by new forms of digital media, Hansen fears that our species is at risk of being drowned by data: “…in a world linked together by…computational networks and increasingly populated with intelligent sensing technologies ranging from environmental sensors to the smart phones…we now carry with us as a matter of course, experience simply is not what it used to be: far more of what goes on in our daily lives is carried out by machines functioning at their own timescales, meaning outside of our direct perceptual grasp but in ways that do significantly affect our activity” (FF, 23). Hansen argues that Whitehead’s re-embedding of human perception in a cosmic vibratory continuum provides a radical corrective to bifurcated Cartesian-Kantian accounts of the relationship between physical processes and human consciousness, a corrective that may help us meet the challenges posed by 21st century digital media.

But Hansen’s reading of Whitehead, assisted by Judith Jones’ beautiful book Intensity (1998), positions itself as an “inversion” of Whitehead’s ontology, which Hansen argues is still residually anthropocentric. Much of what Hansen proposes leans heavily on Jones, even though she herself only claims to be offering a slight revision and reemphasization of concepts already present in Whitehead’s texts (I, x). Hansen summarizes the reasons for his “inversion” of Whitehead’s ontology:

“The canonical interpretation of Whitehead, which is largely justified by his own writings, holds that only concrescence is creative because it is only in concrescence that actualities wield their subjective power; once they ‘perish,’ undergo transition, and enter the settled world, actualities become merely objective (or superjectal), meaning that they become passive and inert and can only become creative again if they are taken up by future concrescences of new actual entities” (FF, 13).

This is, to put it generously, a misleading reading of the role of concrescence and transition in Whitehead’s process-relational ontology. In Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead clearly characterizes objects as antecedent and given to newly concrescing occasions, but definitely “not…generated in that occasion.” The new occasion “does not create the objects which it receives.” Actual occasions do not “[arise] out of a passive situation which is a mere welter of many data.” “The exact contrary is the case,” Whitehead tells us, “[since] the initial situation includes a factor of activity which is the reason for the origin [of the new] occasion of experience” (AI, 179; emphasis mine). Objects are not inert, left to die into the past, but have an expressive capacity that itself serves as the primary phase of each new occasion’s entrance into the present. “The creative process is thus to be discerned in that transition by which one occasion, already actual, enters into the birth of another instance of experienced value” (RM, 99).

Hansen develops a non-prosthetic account of digital media in terms of what he calls “worldly sensibility.” Rather than attributing all agency and creativity to human consciousness, Hansen attributes a kind of sensitivity to data itself, a “datasense,” “[thereby positioning] data-gathering as an independent producer of sensibility (causal efficacy) in its own right” (FF, 149). Hansen claims his project involves a radicalization of Whitehead’s theory of perception, in that Whitehead’s account of concrescence still over-privileges the subject-pole, and thus by extension the humanness, of experience. Hansen instead emphasizes superjective transition over subjective concrescence, and similarly seeks to heighten the distinction between what he describes as the “empirical” and “speculative” aspects of Whitehead’s scheme. But Whitehead does not privilege concrescence over transition, or subjective prehension over superjective expression. His cosmological scheme is an attempt at harmonizing the two principles characterizing reality’s process, and his analogization of philosophic method with the flight of an airplane suggests he also sought a harmonization between speculative and empirical methods (PR, 5). Whitehead is not a phenomenologist; he is, like Schelling, an organic realist. Experience, in the most general or metaphysical terms, is an “oscillation between concrescence and transition of actual entities…or ‘societies’…ranging from the most ‘micro’-level phenomena, for example, quantum decoherence, to the most ‘macro’-level phenomena, for example, geological and cosmological processes” (FF, 14). Here, Whitehead and Hansen are in complete agreement.

Hansen claims he needs to to “radicalize” Whitehead because he sees the latter as still too centered on human consciousness. Whitehead betrays an anthropocentric residue, according to Hansen, when he defines causal efficacy merely in reference to the last tenth of a second of our human experience: “Whitehead’s…reductive rechristening of perception qua causal efficacy as ‘nonsensuous perception’…jettisons the crucial ‘vector character’ of perception, the way lineages of causal efficacy stretch far into the background of perception, and not just to its most immediate just-past” (FF, 20-21); “Whitehead effectively identifies causally efficacious perception with—and, I would argue, limits it to—the immediate past of sensory perception” (FF, 24). But Whitehead is merely using our human experience of causal efficacy as a specific example of the way superjective expressions transition into subjective prehensions, an example close to home: “In human experience, the most compelling example of non-sensuous perception is our knowledge of our own immediate past” (AoI, 178). But in the context of his metaphysics, the example is generalized as an account of causal relations as such; that is, our nonsensuous perception of our own immediate past is imaginatively extended so as to characterize the becoming of actual occasions at every scale. And it is not clear to me that causal efficacy of the sort Hansen refers to as “worldly sensibility” is completely beyond human perception, as he claims: we may have access to it in certain extreme states (psychedelics, NDEs, flow states, etc.). On the other hand, it could be that we become other-than-human during such extreme experiential episodes.

Early in his book, Hansen puts a definitional stake in the ground by referencing Husserl’s distinction between sensation and perception: “sensation [is] the nonintentional material on which perception, and intentionality, is erected” (note 3, p. 271). Hansen argues that Whitehead’s account of “nonsensuous perception” must be replaced with an account of “non-perceptual sensation” (p. 19), but I have a feeling this is a merely a definitional issue having to do with a difference in how Husserlian phenomenologists demarcate “sensation” vs. “perception.” Whitehead explicitly acknowledges the lack of consistency in the philosophical tradition’s various definitions of “perception”: Sensationalist doctrine suggests that perception is always through stimulation of the various sense-organs, but Whitehead argues that “there is a wider meaning” beyond this limited use of the term (AoI, 178). “Tacit identification of perception with sense-perception must be a fatal error barring the advance of systematic metaphysics” (AoI, 180). Below I excerpt two sections of my dissertation that unpack Whitehead’s account of the two pure modes of perception (which I also refer to as “aesthesis”), causal efficacy and presentational immediacy, which I believe makes clear there is no need for the “inversion” Hansen has attempted.

Analysis of prehensionality from my dissertation (pgs. 132-143): It is all too easy to define aesthesis according to the misplaced concreteness, so prevalent among modern philosophers of both the empiricist and rationalist schools, which has it that our primary form of sensory experience is of bare patches of qualia free of all relations. Whitehead called this mode of perception “presentational immediacy” or “sense-perception,” contrasting it with the more primordial mode of “causal efficacy” or “sense-reception.” The latter mode of perception, as its name suggests, directly links our experience to that of other actualities in our causal lineage. That human experience is linked to other actualities by such lineages contradicts the Kantian paradigm, for which perception is “mere appearance” and so causally epiphenomenal. From Whitehead’s perspective, “experience has been explained [by modern philosophers] in a thoroughly topsy-turvy fashion, the wrong end first”: because presentational immediacy (i.e., derivative appearances in the subject) provides us with clear and distinct ideas that are accessible to conceptualization by the understanding, it has been given genetic priority, when in fact, causal efficacy (i.e., primordial feelings of objects) deserves this honor (PR, 162.). “The philosophy of organism is the inversion of Kant’s philosophy,” according to Whitehead, in that while Kant endeavors to construe experience as a process whereby “subjective data pass into the appearance of an objective world,” Whitehead’s philosophy of organism describes experience as a process whereby the order of the objectively felt data pass into and provide intensity for the realization of a subject (PR, 88). In short, in Kant’s philosophy “the world emerges from the subject,” while “for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from the world” (PR, 88).

Rather than treating the objective world as an appearance constructed by subjective activity, as Kant and most other modern thinkers do, Whitehead reverses the direction of the process of perception such that each subject is described as arising from its feelings of other objectified subjects, or superjects (PR, 156). “In the place of the Hegelian [or Kantian] hierarchy of categories of thought,” writes Whitehead, “the philosophy of organism finds a hierarchy of feeling” (PR, 166).

On Whitehead’s reading, Kant privileges perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” and ignores or at least marginalizes the deeper and more ontologically relevant perceptual mode of “causal efficacy.” “Presentational immediacy” displays reality in a way amenable to representational analysis, showing only the more or less clear and distinct surfaces of the world as they are presented to a reflective subject here and now. It is the end product of a complex process of unconscious prehensive unification accomplished by the society of actual occasions composing our organism and nervous system. “Causal efficacy” unfolds behind the scenes of the Cartesian theater of presentational immediacy, hidden in the unrepresentable depths of reality, carrying vague emotional vectors from the past into the present. Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is punctual (hence its relative clarity and distinctness), while perception in the mode of causal efficacy is transitional (hence its vagueness). Presentational immediacy allows for intentional consciousness, the subjective capacity for attentional directedness toward the eidos of objects. Causal efficacy is prehensional, the presubjective capacity to inherit the affective influences of objects. The former mode requires that a mind remain at a distance from things, sensing their essence rather than prehending their causal presence, while the latter implies the interpenetration of things, the transition from the superjective beings of the past into the subjective becoming of the present. Whitehead’s alchemical distillation of consciousness reveals an experiential structure even deeper than conceptuality, an ontologically primordial mode of experience shared in by every actuality in the cosmos. If anything is a priori, it is not the transcendental structures of human conceptuality as Kant argued, but the descendental processes of cosmic prehensionality.
(pgs. 156-159): Prehension should not be thought of as resulting in an actual occasion “having” experience of other occasions, as though an occasion were “the unchanging subject of change” (PR, 29). This would inevitably lead back to the classical bifurcated conception of substantial minds qualified by their private representations of supposedly public material objects. For the philosophy of organism, an actual occasion is not a pre-existent subject qualified by its representations of ready-made objects. Instead, actual occasions are re-imagined as dipolar “subject-superjects” (PR, 29). The “subject” phase of a concrescing occasion emerges from the prehensions of antecedent occasions which it unifies, while in the “superject” phase the occasion, having attained satisfaction as a unified drop of decisively patterned experience, perishes into “objective immortality,” which then initiates another round of prehension by a subsequently concrescing actual occasion. Whitehead expresses the perpetual perishing of subjective immediacy into objective immortality in terms of his “principle of relativity,” such that “it belongs to the nature of a ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming’” (PR, 22). Actual occasions are thus describable in two ways: as “being” and as “becoming.” These ontological designations are not separable, since, according to Whitehead’s correlative “principle of process,” an occasion’s “being” arises from its “becoming”: “how an actual [occasion] becomes constitutes what that actual [occasion] is” (PR, 23). The description of an occasion according to its genetic “becoming” provides an account of the occasion’s own subjective aim (i.e., its final cause), while the description according to its extensive “being” provides an account of its superjective effect as prehended by other occasions beyond itself (i.e., as efficient cause). Creative process is said to manifest in two ways, as the concrescence of each individual entity, and as the transition from one occasion to the next. Concrescence describes “the real internal constitution of a particular existent,” while transition describes the perishing of a particular existent’s process, thereby “constituting that existent as an original element in the constitutions of other particular existences elicited by repetitions of process” (PR, 210). “The transition is real, and the achievement is real,” writes Whitehead. “The difficulty is for language to express one of them without explaining away the other” (Modes of Thought, 102).

End Notes

♠ Also quoted by Marshall McLuhan (Understanding Media, 60).

♣ Or perhaps this assumes too shallow an understanding of analogy, which is plenty cosmological (in the Whiteheadian aesthetic sense) already if, like McLuhan, we adopt the Thomist theory of analogical perception, wherein “the sensory order resonates with the divine Logos.…Analogy is not concept. It is community. It is resonance. It is inclusive. It is the cognitive process itself. That is the analogy of the divine Logos. … [I]mmediate analogical awareness … begins in the senses and is derailed by concepts or ideas” (McLuhan to John W. Mole, 18 April 1969). In other words, perhaps analogical reasoning links us via perception/aesthesis to the cosmic logos.

♥ E.g., consider how Postman criticisms of modern technology resemble the prophet Isaiah: “Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands” (Isaiah 2:8); or the prophet Jeremiah: “They burned incense to other gods and worshipped the works of their hands” (Jeremiah 1:16).

♦ See my dissertation for more on the convergence of Whitehead and Schelling’s process philosophies: Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead (2016). A media determinist might argue that in my attempt to cosmologize media theory, I am simply mistaking the meaning created by words for meaning discovered in the world. That alphabetic literacy serves as the media a priori for cosmological speculation I do not doubt. But Schelling’s philosophy of language reveals the way alphabetic consciousness, like the mythic consciousness which preceded it, is only an intensification of potencies already present in nature. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie allowed him to “cognize the physical in language,” and to “arrange…the history of…language…in analogy to the geological” (Schelling, Werke, vol. 8, 452-453). Do humans make sense of the Earth, or are humans the Earth making sense of itself? From Schelling’s point of view, the philosophy of nature is nature itself philosophizing, Autophusis philosophia. For more on the way human myth and language can be read as expressions of the Earth, see “Logos of a Living Earth: Toward a New Marriage of Science and Myth for Our Planetary Future” in World Futures, vol. 68 , Iss. 2, 2012. 

Pre-Defense Dissertation Draft Completed

My dissertation defense is on Monday morning. I’ve just finished the “pre-defense” draft. I have until April 11th to finalize the published version. Below are the abstract, table of contents, and acknowledgements. 

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  • Jacob Sherman, PhD, Chair
    Associate Professor, Philosophy and Religion Department, California Institute of Integral Studies

 

  • Sean Kelly, PhD
    Professor, Philosophy and Religion Department, California Institute of Integral Studies

 

 

  • Frederick Amrine, PhD
    Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, German Department, University of Michigan

 

COSMOTHEANTHROPIC IMAGINATION IN THE POST-KANTIAN PROCESS PHILOSOPHY OF SCHELLING AND WHITEHEAD

Abstract

In this dissertation, I lure the process philosophies of F.W.J Schelling and A.N. Whitehead into orbit together around the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant. I argue that Schelling and Whitehead’s descendental aesthetic ontology provides a way across the epistemological chasm that Kant’s critiques opened up between experience and reality. While Kant’s problematic scission between phenomena and the thing-in-itself remains an essential phase in the maturation of the human mind, it need not be the full realization of mind’s potential in relation to Nature. I contrast Schelling and Whitehead’s descendental philosophy with Kant’s transcendentalism by showing how their inverted method bridges the chasm—not by resolving the structure of reality into clear and distinct concepts—but by replanting cognition in the aesthetic processes from which it arises. Hidden at the generative root of our seemingly separate human capacities for corporeal sensation and intellectual reflection is the same universally distributed creative power underlying star formation and blooming flowers. Human consciousness is not an anomaly but is a product of the Earth and wider universe, as natural as leaves on a tree. Through a creative interweaving of their process-relational orientations, I show how the power of imagination so evident in Schelling and Whitehead’s thought can provide philosophy with genuine experiential insight into cosmos, theos, and anthropos in the aftermath of the Kantian revolution. The two—anthropos and cosmos—are perceived as one by a common sense described in this dissertation as etheric imagination. This etheric sense puts us in touch with the divine life of Nature, which the ancients personified as the ψυχὴ του κόσμου or anima mundi.

Table of Contents

Abstract iv
Acknowledgements vii
Prologue — Imagining Cosmos, Theos, and Anthropos in Post-Kantian Process Philosophy 2
Chapter 1 — Kant as Guardian of the Threshold of Imagination 9
1.1 Whitehead, Schelling, and the Aftermath of Kant 16
1.2 The Kantian Mode of Thought 24
1.2.1 Thinking 27
1.2.2 Desiring 38
1.2.3 Feeling 42
Chapter 2 — Descendental Philosophy and Aesthetic Ontology: Reimagining the Kantian Mode of Thought 55
2.1 Aesthetic Ontology and Nietzsche’s Confrontation with Nihilism 70
2.2 Aesthetic Ontology in Sallis’ Elemental Phenomenology 95
2.3 Aesthetic Ontology in Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism 99
Chiasmus — Schelling and Whitehead’s Descendental Aesthetic: Crossing the Kantian Threshold 111
Chapter 3 — The Inversion of Kant: From a Mechanistic to an Organic Cosmology 132
3.1 The Refutation of Kant’s “Refutation of Idealism”: From Subject-Substance Correlation to Process-Relational Creativity 150
3.2 From Geometric Conditions of Possibility to Genetic Conditions of Actuality 167
Chapter 4 — Etheric Imagination in Naturphilosophie: Toward a Physics of the World-Soul 177
4.1 Traces of the Ether in Kant’s Opus Postumum 181
4.2 Etheric Imagination in Schelling and Whitehead 192
4.3 Nature Philosophy as “Spiritual Sensation” 201
4.4 Etheric Imagination and Vegetal Metaphysics 209
Epilogue — Incarnational Process Philosophy in the Worldly Religion of Schelling, Whitehead, and Deleuze 230
References 254

Acknowledgements

Without the intellectual encouragement and personal friendships of Jake Sherman, Sean Kelly, Fred Amrine, Brian Swimme, Robert McDermott, Eric Weiss, Elizabeth Allison, and Rick Tarnas, this dissertation could not have been written. Thanks to each of them, and also to the entire community of students in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program for sharing their philosophical passion and for the conversations that helped spark many of the ideas expressed in what follows. Thank you, finally, to my fiancée Becca for her inspiring imagination, for her encouragement, and for her patience as I labored over drafts of this text for so many consecutive weeks.

The Ecology of Ideas: Enacting Worlds Worth Living In

“Every scientific man in order to preserve his reputation has to say he dislikes metaphysics. What he means is he dislikes having his metaphysics criticized.”

-Alfred North Whitehead

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Over at Knowledge-Ecology, Adam Robbert has thrown a few fantastic posts up unpacking his vision of the ecology of ideas. Concepts are capacities skillfully enacted in ecological contexts. There is no self or mental substance that “has” concepts–this is not the sort of “capacity” Adam is talking about. Rather, when “I” learn or unlearn a particular species of concept, “I” become other than I was. “No thinker thinks twice,” as Whitehead put it in Process and Reality. Concepts are everywhere swarming through our environments, infecting us like viruses, altering not only the content but the structure of our embodied minds.

In the comments beneath his post, a fascinating exchange continues to unfold between Adam and a few proponents of eliminativism, including the inventor of “Blind Brain Theory” R. Scott Bakker. As I posted there, the eliminativist’s attempt to erase 1st person experience is self-refuting–a performative contradiction!–since the scientific epistemology that is supposed to grant knowledge of 3rd person Nature out there already presupposes a Mind capable of knowing it.

Bakker responded by dismissing Mind and intentionality and experience, etc., as transcendental a prioris because ultimately their existence depends entirely on our willingness to believe in them. In other words, Bakker argues that my defense of 1st person experience amounts to just another religious faith, while his eliminativism is the result of “hard” scientific empiricism. Bakker’s way of demarcating science from religion is a telling one, since it highlights what is perhaps our core point of philosophical divergence. Like Adam, I see meaning as an intrinsic feature of our evolutionary context. All organisms enact worlds and are always already structurally coupled with their environments. They survive, when they do, because they have managed to communicate with their environments in a more or less coherent way. (As will become clearer below, it is important to remember here that “environment” means “other organisms”). The human organism is just one species of meaning-maker among many here on earth. Our form of meaning-making often goes under the name of “religion.” I’m not sure if Adam totally follows me here, but I’d argue that religious fabulation is in this sense inescapable. Adam prefers to speak in the secular terms of “cosmopolitics” instead of religion, but in the context of Bruno Latour’s Gaian natural theology, I think it becomes more clear that the “secular” is already a highly charged religious concept (and it becomes a fetish if we’re not careful). Adam writes that “philosophy must aim for self-care and not just self-knowledge; we must create a livable system of ideas in addition to pursuing critical denouncements of dogmatism.” Human beings have a biological need to create such a livable system of ideas. So, in this sense, religion (or cosmopolitics) has as much ontological significance as science; each is always already implicated in the other’s attempt to justify itself (as Whitney Bauman argues in his new book Religion and Ecology). This, to my mind, is the only way to meet the real challenge of post-Darwinian epistemology: to think truth in an evolutionary context is to give up our belief in the “true world” and to accept the apparent world as the real world (=aesthetics as first philosophy). This was Nietzsche’s challenge to the traditional consensus of Enlightenment philosophers.

I actually agree with Bakker that the transcendental and phenomenological approaches to defending experience are misguided. As I’ve discussed with Evan Thompson in the past, I think his enactivist extension of phenomenology to biology goes a long way toward the sort of experiential realism I’m after. But in the end, it still falls short and remains ontologically underdetermined in my opinion. Taking cues from Whitehead and Schelling, I think life (or a radically deanthropocized “experience” if you prefer) is the more general category than matter. (To be fair, Thompson also draws approvingly on Robert Rosen, who makes a similar argument regarding the generality of life.) Another way of putting this would be to say that ecology should replace physics as the most foundational science. Physical space and time would then not only be relativized, but pluralized: brought forth as various scales by enduring relations between organisms. The universal “space-time” known to physicists is not the pre-given, eternally imposed geometrical background within which the energetic transactions of actual entities takes place, but is itself brought forth by the energetic transactions of the most encompassing society actual entities (the electromagnetic and gravitronic societies?).  Space-time is enacted ecologically, brought forth by the creative intra-action of a cosmic community of actual occasions. (I go into this Whiteheadian conception of space-time in more depth in my essay Physics of the World-Soul).

In sum, I think it is important in a conversation like this to acknowledge off the bat that we are doing speculative metaphysics either way (whether we are eliminativists or panexperientialists). Bakker’s blind brain theory is science fiction, not science fact. But it is no less compelling for this! I appreciate the challenge he is raising, since it is clear to me that the only viable ontological options at this point in the history of philosophy are eliminativism or panexperientialism (as Steven Shaviro continues to argue).

Our philosophical options here are not simply the Scientific Facts of neuroscience versus the deluded fairy tales of metaphysics. Neuroscientific findings can and should inform our speculative grasp of the universe and its processes, but to my mind it is a regressive and forgetful maneuver to pretend neuroscience somehow “purifies” human understanding of metaphysics. This notion that positive science might somehow secure epistemological freedom from speculative imagination so as to deal only with the self-evident facts of physical reality, or whatever, is the worst kind of metaphysics because it is unconscious metaphysics.