Process and Difference in the Pluriverse: Plato, William James, & W.E.B. Du Bois

I’m sharing the lecture from the first module of my course this semester at, PARP 6135: Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. The lecture discusses Plato’s Republic, William James’ pluralism, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ critical inheritance of James’ philosophy.

Here’s a PDF transcript of the lecture

Schelling’s Descendental Philosophy (and its Whiteheadian resonances)

Much of the rather fragmentary thoughts to follow were spurred by my reading of Jason Wirth’s wondrous little essay in the HUGE Palgrave Companion to German Idealism (2014), “Nature of Imagination: At the Heart of Schelling’s Thinking.” Based on the subtitle of his newly published book Schelling’s Practice of the Wild: Time, Art, and Imagination (2015), it looks like he continues to unpack many of the themes of this essay there. I would’ve read it already, but I’m hoping it will become more affordable (hardcover is $70 on Amazon).

Schelling has commonly been labeled an “objective idealist” and made historically relevant only as the stepping stone between Fichte’s “subjective” and Hegel’s “absolute idealism.” More recently, his work is being creatively retrieved by a number of thinkers who describe it as running distinctly against the idealistic grain of Fichte’s and Hegel’s philosophizing. These thinkers include Wirth, Iain Hamilton Grant, Ben Woodard, and Bruce Matthews.

Wirth claims in the second sentence of his essay that “one cannot do philosophy only by doing philosophy.” The philosopher, he says, must be in conversation with natural science, art, history, and religion. I agree that philosophy has no object unless it finds itself in dialogue with these other modes of thought, but this does not rule out the possibility that philosophy has a subject all its own. That is to say, philosophy as such has no object other than itself, the subject doing the philosophizing. The subject, the Self, is of course no ordinary thing or object–if it can be so labeled at all. The Self–the protagonist of all idealisms–is described by Fichte as an unconditioned (unbedingte) act rather than an objective fact. It is literally unthingable (un-ding-able), the transcendental ground of all conditioned things.


Schelling does not deny the transcendental approach to philosophy. He only relativizes its claims to the Absolute by articulating a complementary approach that we might call descendental philosophy. Wirth deploys Deleuzo-Guattarian lingo to argue that, for Schelling, “Nature [is] the image of thought as such.” Recall that for D&G, the confrontation with Chaos is the precondition of philosophy. In Schelling, Chaos becomes the “abyss of freedom,” the “dark precursor” of thought, “that which is absolutely mobile…which is continually an Other, which cannot be held on to for a moment” (On The History of Modern Philosophy, 152). For Schelling, then, the prime subject-object of philosophical thought is not the Self, but the incomprehensible groundlessness preceding volitional egoity and objectified physicality alike. This groundlessness, this abyss, is unprethinkable (unvordenklichen). Whitehead referred to it as Creativity. This creative abyss before Self and Nature provides the groundless ground of Reason. The philosopher comes into contact with it in the sensuous world, the realm of aesthesis, hence the early Schelling’s claim that an “aesthetic act” provides the keystone of philosophy and the late Schelling’s defense of what he termed “metaphysical” or “higher empiricism.” According to Schelling, despite the fact that “everything in the sensuous world is grasped in number and measure,” this “does not therefore mean that geometry or arithmetic explain the sensuous world” (HMP, 147). Whitehead similarly argues that “The general principle of empiricism depends upon the doctrine that there is a principle of concretion which is not discoverable by abstract reason” (Science and the Modern World, 179). The “higher empiricism” Schelling alludes to is not at all the positivistic empiricism of much modern science, wherein through “servile imitation” a reflective mind attempts to represent the forms of Nature as though these forms were “still born,” as Wirth puts it. Schelling’s is not a “high altitude” view of nature as a collection of objects mechanically governed by arbitrarily imposed mathematical laws. Rather, Schelling, like Whitehead, returns the philosopher to his or her concrete aesthetic encounter with Nature (to our prehension of Nature, in Whitehead’s terms). It is here that Nature’s natality, her creativity, shines through the superficial appearance of objective finitude. Our sensory experience, attended to in earnest, reveals itself to be infinite, sublime; it is only after reflective consciousness has manufactured for us a finite, ordered world that this infinity is obscured, covered over. In attempting to descend below the veil of intellectual reflection into the depths of the sensible, the philosopher puts their sanity at risk. According to Wirth, for Schelling “philosophy is the negotiation of madness, reason’s ongoing encounter with what resists reason.” In this way, Schelling reverses the typical orientation of philosophy toward the intelligible. Or at least he affirms that a certain kind of madness lurks within or behind intellect itself, giving it life. Intellect absent all madness would be mere mechanical understanding. Like Whitehead, Schelling is more concerned with keeping thought alive than with repeating stale truths of the merely logical sort (as Whitehead puts it, “in the real world, it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true”).  

Schelling’s approach could also be called an empiricism of imagination. As Wirth says, “Schelling is through and through a thinker of the problem of imagination, of the emergence into image of that which itself has no image.” His aesthetic (un)grounding of philosophy destabilizes the Hegelian notion that philosophy ought to overcome itself by arriving at a finished “system of science.” Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an infinite creative task, not a finished system. Naturphilosophie is not a philosophy about nature but “Nature itself philosophizing” (autophusis philosophia). “None of our spiritual thoughts transcend the earth,” says Schelling. Unlike so much modern philosophy, Schelling puts Nature, rather than Mind, at the center of thought. Where modern philosophy put the human subject at the center, Schelling realized that the true subject of humanity is Nature herself: “Nature is a priori.” The human being is unique among earthly creatures in that it knows reality’s ground is incomprehensible. With this knowledge, we can either use our new found freedom to flee upwards by way of anti-physical idealistic transcendentalism, or we can fall deeper in love with cosmogenesis via a naturephilosophical descendentalism. The former option, freedom without love, quickly devolves into alienation. Idealists like Kant and Fichte tried to overcome this devolution by privileging practical over theoretical philosophy. To save the possibility of love between humans they had to deny the possibility of a loving knowledge of Nature. Schelling moved away from modern technoscience’s conception of knowledge as power in favor of what Goethe termed a “gentle empiricism,” or what might be called a loving knowledge. Rather than recoiling from the abyss of the sensible to a supposedly stable intelligible ground, as critical philosophy does, Schelling dives heart first into its radiant darkness. His is a creative, rather than a critical philosophy. Critical philosophy is not to be rejected, however. It is indispensable for clearing the way, for preparing thought for its encounter with the Real. But Reason alone cannot take us all the way. Schelling is clear on this point: “Without intellectual intuition, no philosophy!” The capacity for this sort of intuition, akin to artistic genius or mystical experience, depends on a certain character trait, Schelling tells us. As such, it cannot be taught to just anyone, as geometry or arithmetic can; it can, however, be developed in those with a heartfelt sense for the “nullity” of all finite knowledge. Because of his tendency to rest philosophical insight on the capacity for genius or mystical sensitivity, Schelling may fall victim to what Hegel referred to as the “Sunday’s Children” problem. Mystical experience (Greek: musterion) is “secret” experience, experience known only silently. As such it is difficult if not impossible to communicate about to those who have not encountered it for themselves. Whitehead similarly likens philosophy to “imaginative art,” implying that it is only a unique personality who can philosophize creatively (just as it takes a certain inborn ability to write inspired poetry or play beautiful music). Despite Hegel’s critique and insistence that philosophy must rest on a universal and easily teachable method (which itself may sway too far in the opposite direction), both Schelling and Whitehead were rigorous thinkers committed to sharing ideas in public. They simply rejected the idea that the creative abyss at the heart of Nature could be finally described or explained. As Merleau-Ponty suggested in his late lecture course on Whitehead, “Nature is always new in each perception,” even while it is “never without a past.” An ever-new Nature cannot be captured once and for all by any verbal statement or logical formula, no matter how dialectically sophisticated. As is said of Isis, Goddess of Nature: “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my veil no mortal has yet uncovered.”

Schelling and Whitehead share an intuition about eternity’s participation in time, and about God’s participation in Nature. “Nothing comes into being in time,” writes Schelling. “Rather, in each thing time comes into being immediately from eternity into the new…The beginning of time is in each thing, and, indeed, each thing is the same as the eternal beginning. Each particular comes into being through this cision through which the world comes into being” (Weltalter, 79). Like Whitehead, Schelling sees each actual entity as inwardly resonant with eternity, or what Whitehead called the primordial nature of God. The primordial nature is the original rhythm or first song sung by the divine poet that still resounds within each temporal being. It is through our intellectual intuition that we can hear this silent song–“silent” because it provides the ground-tone for our entire existence, its humble humming hardly noticeable but for special moments of mystical insight. God is “the poet of the world,” as Whitehead puts it, the cosmic myth-maker or speaker of secrets gently guiding us toward Nature’s hidden meaning. Whitehead’s primordial nature of God is what is most ancient in Nature and what reveals itself in the present as the promise of a future. According to Wirth, “Nature is the life of imagination.” I’m reminded of William Blake’s statement “to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is imagination itself.” Blake also describes imagination as “spiritual sensation,” which might be a helpful way of rendering “intellectual intuition” in English. In Schelling, imagination (Einbildungskraft) is the movement of the infinite into the finite (and back again). 

response to R. Scott Bakker on transcendental phenomenology and BBT

Anyone who posits some form of efficacy or constraint outside the natural order on the basis of some kind of interpretation of ‘experience’ has the same argumentative burden to discharge: How do you know? What justifies such an extraordinary (supernatural) posit?…What makes the question so pressing now is that their instrument, reflection, has finally found itself on the coroner’s table. -R. Scott Baker

There is nothing “outside” the natural order. In this sense, I am opposed to the transcendentalist’s move to remove Reason or the reflective understanding from physical reality. There is indeed a supernaturalist residue in much transcendental and phenomenological philosophy. This is why my project has always been to theorize “the natural order” as itself always already creative, aesthetic, interpretational, experiential (mine is a naturalized transcendental (Schelling’s “Nature is a priori”)). There is no “other” world from which the causal efficacy of our world derives. With our universe, the cause is internal to the effect, which is another way of saying our universe is primarily organic (with mechanism as a secondary appearance). This is why I follow Whitehead in the endeavor to construct an ontology of organism, wherein: 1) Physics is the study of the evolutionary development of particles, stars, galaxies, and other micro- and macro- organisms-in-ecologies; 2) Biology is the study of the evolutionary development of single cells, plants, and animals in their meso-cosmic ecologies; 3) Philosophy, anthropology, and theology are different aspects of the study of the evolutionary development of languages, myths, and ideas in their noetic ecologies. The organism-environment field becomes the metaphysical metaphor guiding our theorizing, rather than the machine.

Now, when I say “my project has always been to theorize…”, I should qualify that “theory” in the context of an open-ended, evolving cosmos such as ours can never pretend to certainty or finality. Theory is not the construction of a disinterested, reflective ego (at least, no valuable theory is). Theory always remains dependent on the speculative leap of some metaphor or another. Theory is imaginative construction requiring equal doses of aesthetic taste and logical clarity. Our theories are always as much science fiction as they are science fact.

I agree with Bakker than cognition of the real just isn’t possible. But we must distinguish between cognition on the one hand, and sensation, feeling, and intuition on the other. If an intuition of the real is our goal, using the reflective instrument is like shining a flashlight in search of darkness. Reflective cognition is like King Midas, turning everything it touches into noetic gold. It transforms everything not-I into food for itself, digesting the world and defecating whatever it can’t assimilate as waste. It does’t seem to me much of a stretch to say that modernity’s exclusive reliance on reflective cognition is one of the main factors leading to the ecological crisis.

Let me be clear that, while I defend transcendental phenomenology from Bakker’s eliminativist meta-critique, my own philosophical home base is process-relational ontology. I have major issues with transcendental phenomenology as a philosophical resting place. It remains too anthropocentric, too concerned with issues of human access and not attentive enough to solar nucleosynthesis, cellular mitosis, and atmospheric levels of CH4. But still, I just don’t understand how, having grasped the power of transcendental critique–as critique–one could fail to see eliminativist arguments like BBT as anything but dogmatic materialism (materialism has today become the new School Philosophy, though it pretends to be the ultimate critic of all metaphysics). Where I leave transcendentalism behind is in my pursuit of a constructive, cosmologically-rooted philosophy, something the phenomenological approach just cannot provide.


It is clear Bakker has done his philosophical homework. I don’t think it is fair of him to lump everyone into the same transcendentalist clown car, though. Phenomenology was born out of the intense debates between Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, all of whom accused Kant of not having cleared his vision of dogmatist residues. They all recognized the possibility and the fact of neglect, and even of the neglect of neglect. But for these post-Kantians (with the possible exception of Hegel), the transcendental project was an infinite one by definition, meaning there would never be a point when the a priori structures were finally reached and could be clearly and distinctly spelled out once and for all. Fichte grounded the transcendental historically in the ethical development of humankind, describing philosophy as an attempt to asymptotically approach absolute metacognition as an ideal while never in fact being able to reach it. Schelling went further and grounded the transcendental in the creative developmental arc of the cosmos itself. For Schelling (and here he converges with Whitehead), not even God knows the a priori conditions of experiential reality: the divine is just as caught in the chaotic turmoil of historical becoming as any creature is. None of these thinkers, with the possible exception of Fichte when he is sloppy, thought that impersonal natural systems could be cognized in terms of their own 1st person experience.

Here is Schelling mulling over this exact problem, for ex.:

“I could conceive of that being perhaps as something that, initially blind, struggles through every level of becoming toward consciousness, and humanity would then arise precisely at that moment, at that point in which the previously blind nature would reach self-consciousness. But this cannot be, since our self-consciousness is not at all the consciousness of that nature that permeates everything: it is just *our* consciousness and hardly encompasses within itself a science of becoming applicable to all things. This universal becoming remains just as foreign and opaque to us as if it had never had a bearing on us at all. Therefore, if this becoming has achieved any kind of purpose it is achieved only through humanity, but not for humanity; for the consciousness of humanity does not = equal the consciousness of nature” (The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 1841).

In other words, 1st person reflective ego consciousness is largely a sham. It can tell us little if anything about the unconscious natural ground from which it emerges. Of course, Schelling (like Whitehead) argued that the field of experience extends beyond mere 1st person ego consciousness. My argument with Bakker has always been: why reduce the experiential field that is open to us to 1st person ego consciousness? Most of our daily and nightly experience is not egoic! Most of the time we are flowing through other experiential states more akin to animals, plants, and even minerals. So in a sense mine is also a post-human manifesto. We have never been human, if you want.

Towards an Aesthetic Ontology: Beauty, Sublimity, and Infinity

“Two things fill the mind with ever-renewing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind is drawn to think of them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” So says Kant in the conclusion to his Critique of Practical Reason. He goes on to explain that neither the sky above him nor the freedom within him should be considered mere conjectures. Neither is beyond the horizon of conscious experience. We sense the celestial lights above through our eyes, and we sense the moral freedom within through our heart, the innermost source of our self-hood. Kant continues: “The former view of a countless multitude of worlds annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital power, one knows not how, must again give back the matter of which it was formed to the planet it inhabits (a mere speck in the universe). The second, on the contrary, infinitely elevates my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world, at least so far as may be inferred from the destination assigned to my existence by this law, a destination not restricted to the conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.”


I started thinking about Kant’s accounts of beauty, sublimity, and morality after reading Levi Bryant’s recent post on beauty as an absolute value. An absolute value, in Bryant’s sense, is a value that we hold for its own sake as an end in itself. He discusses beauty as one example of such a value and wonders what role it might play in resisting the instrumentalizing tendency of neoliberal capitalism, whereby every aspect of life comes to be valued only in terms of its usefulness or profitability. Bryant suggests that the earlier theological understanding of beauty (i.e., beauty as an index of a divine Creator) must be replaced by an immanent, naturalistic account. He writes:

The question then becomes that of why we find the beautiful beautiful, of why we encounter the beautiful at all.  This is not a question– at least at first –of what we find beautiful.  In other words, it is not a question where discussions of harmony, pattern, and proportion would be appropriate answers.  Again, the question here is not what is beautiful, but why such things would be beautiful to us at all.  What is the ground of the ability to have, as Kant put it, “disinterested pleasure” or the ability to find things beautiful?

To phrase the question in Kantian terms opens the door to a sort of transcendental compromise between earlier dogmatic accounts of beauty as the work of a transcendent Creator and later materialist accounts in terms of evolutionary survival value. It is clear enough to me (and of course to Bryant) that a transcendent Creator offers us little in the way of a rational explanation for beauty. It is just as clear that an account of beauty in terms of its survival value won’t do, either, and for precisely the reasons that Bryant articulates: such an explanation must first translate beauty into instrumental terms as a means to the end of survival. Darwinian accounts of sexual selection help us understand part of the reason male peacock feathers are so ornate, but the underlying causal efficacy of an organism’s perception of and response to beauty remains an unexplained explainer. A further problem is that many interpretations of naturalism forbid the idea of organismic agency or purposiveness, making the perception of beauty underlying sexual selection an even bigger mystery.

There are other interpretations of naturalism, of course. From a Whiteheadian point of view, wherein beauty is the very teleology of the universe, the locus and valence of mystery are shifted elsewhere. Mystery is no longer a problem to be explained, but a reality to be experienced (to paraphrase Frank Herbert). Whitehead’s is an aesthetic ontology, which is to say that aesthetic achievement is the very essence of reality. All order is aesthetic order. To “understand” this order means nothing more or less than to experience its beauty.

Returning to Kant’s famous statement about the starry heavens above and the moral law within, I think we can validate the physical feeling he is attempting to express even if we are forced to reject the metaphysical conclusions he draws from it. If human beings have any moral freedom and worth, it must be the freedom and worth we share with animals. For we are animals. Accepting our creatureliness and our dependence on the ecological networks of Earth doesn’t require that we deny our participation in the infinite. It is our intuition of the infinite, both outside and within ourselves, that generates beauty. Instead of, like Kant, sharply dividing animal aesthesis from moral or spiritual noesis, we can recognize the sublime heights of the heavens and the sublime depths of the heart as equally aesthetic in nature.

Beauty, then, is an end in itself precisely because of its infinite sources. We cannot reach beyond or behind its inner and outer appearances. In this sense, this is an immanent account of beauty. When we try to peer beyond the cosmos outside us, or plumb the psyche within us, we find only more appearances, an infinite progression of appearances. When the intellect tries to grasp the infinity of aesthesis, it slips into an infinite regression. It fails to find an original ground or fundamental reason for the ongoing aesthetic genesis of reality. Only the imagination can intuit the meaning of the infinite aesthetic progression of beauty.

I realize I am disrespecting the differences Kant sought to establish in his Critique of Judgment between the beautiful and the sublime. But part of what an aesthetic ontology requires is that the sublime be de-Kantianized. Kant took the aesthetic “too muchness” of encounters with the sublime (like the starry night) and tried to redeploy them as evidence of humanity’s moral superiority over nature. He comes so close to decentering the human in the face of the sublime depths of the cosmos, and then backs away into artificial moralizing. There is so much more that could be said about all this, but for now I can only muster an ellipsis (and a link some thoughts of mine from several years ago about the links between ethics and aesthetics)…

Whitehead’s Non-Modern Philosophy: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse (draft)

The following was an early draft of a talk I gave in my own track at the Whitehead/Ecological Civilization conference in Claremont, CA. For video of the actual talk, click HERECosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse.001

This track has been given the task of re-imagining late modernity, and in particular, of re-imagining what John Cobb has called late modernity’s reductive monism. In my talk today, I want to try sketch a cosmopolitical alternative to late modernity’s reductive monism as part of an attempt to begin preparing us, at least in the realm of ideas and imagination, for a ecological civilization to come. My approach will not be systematic, but pluralistic. I aim to sketch an alternative to modernity by drawing out the metaphysical possibilities opened up by ontological pluralism. My method is one of philosophical “assemblage,” which Whitehead suggests should precede the stage of careful systematization. System comes later, after the owl of Minerva has flown (as Hegel has suggested), when we have time for careful reflection about details. Right now, matters are rather urgent and there is no time to fill in all the details. This is philosophy in a time of emergency. An old story is dying, and we need as many hints about the new one emerging as we can manage. It’s my hope that a people to come will find more room to breathe in the processual pluriverse I’ll attempt to sketch than modern people have found in their incoherently bifurcated and so alienating picture of a materialistic universe.

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I will draw, of course, on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead, the man of the hour. But also on William James, one of Whitehead’s most important influences. In addition I will build on the work of the contemporary French Whiteheadians Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour.

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Let’s begin by unpacking the title of the track a bit. To better grasp the metaphysical underpinnings of “late modernity,” maybe its best to start by comparing it with “early modernity.” Early modernity was dualistic: on one side of the ontological divide were rational subjects, who by freely entering into a social contract, became citizens in a democratic state; on the other side were mechanical objects, which by obeying universal causal laws, operated as part of a deterministic nature. Human society on one side, nonhuman nature on the other. Modernity thus began with a twin mission, what Latour refers to as the “double task of emancipation and domination” (We Have Never Been Modern, 10). The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was technoscientific: to become masters and owners of nature.

So what has happened? Why did late modernity become monistic, as Cobb describes it? For one thing, the 19th century brought the discoveries of geological deep time and evolutionary theory, both of which placed the human/nature dualism of the 17th century on far shakier ground. A metaphysical decision was made to reduce human beings to one side of the former ontological dualism, and so we have increasingly been understood as only a more sophisticated form of biological machine. The alternative way of establishing a human/nature continuity would have been to re-imagine nature as, like us, in some sense ensouled (an alternative we will explore momentarily).

Even more important in the collapse of dualism into monism, however, was the 20th century failure of communism. What many would consider to be our greatest hope of ending exploitation of humans by humans was outlasted by capitalism, which has since given up on modernity’s emancipatory mission and doubled down on domination. The failure of communism, neoliberal capitalists say, showed once and for all that human nature is basically selfish. Capitalists argue that domination and mastery of both human labor and natural resources through a kind of market monism is our only hope for an albeit quasi-civilized existence. Only the invisible hand of the market can assure the stability of civilization. Everything from politics to religion to education to healthcare should be given over to the free market, as though no other form of self-organization could help order our societies. As the Jamesian political scientist Kennan Ferguson describes it in his book Politics in the Pluriverse, late modernity brought a “shift in political science toward representing political actors as economic consumers. The increasing economism of political science has meant that many of the issues of interest to political philosophers–sovereignty, legitimacy, representation–have been recast as potential choices in a marketplace of ideologies, where voter/consumers are peddled competing brand names” (27). What’s clear is that the 20th century only led modernity to replace one war with another, the Cold War for the Warming War. Capitalism no longer faces another human enemy. It is now at war with Gaia.

As Latour says, “By seeking to orient man’s exploitation of man toward an exploitation of nature by man, capitalism has magnified both beyond measure” (Modern, 8). Our situation as late modern people is stated starkly by Latour: “between modernizing and ecologizing, we have to choose” (AIME, 8).

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Ecologizing our civilization will require re-imagining the philosophical assumptions underlying the modern worldview. “A philosophic outlook,” writes Whitehead, “is the very foundation of thought and of life…As we think, we live.” I think I speak for all of us in this track, and perhaps for this entire conference, when I defend the simple thesis that ideas matter. Philosophy is not merely mental entertainment. On the contrary, it is a matter of life and death. As Whitehead argues, the dominant philosophy of every age “moulds our type of civilization” (Modes of Thought, 63). Modern philosophy, largely shaped by Descartes’ understanding of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the free human spirit and an entirely mechanical nature, has been thoroughly critiqued by contemporary environmental philosophers for its ecologically disastrous side-effects. Most serious thinkers no longer consider dualism to be a “living option,” as William James would say. Descartes’ early modern dualism split spirit from matter so thoroughly that it left no room for life. Late modern market monism—by reducing earth to, at best a resource, and at worst a trash bin, and by reducing human beings to cogs in a technocapitalist profit machine—has gone even further, since it not only leaves no room for life, it actively seeks to exterminate it. The currently unfolding mass extinction is not at all surprising as the outcome of modern philosophy. To Whitehead’s statement we must add the corollary statement: As we think, we die. Both dualism and monism have failed us. At this point, as Latour puts it, “we have to fight trouble with trouble, counter a metaphysical machine with a bigger metaphysical machine” (AIME, 22). I’m following Whitehead, James, Latour, and Stengers in proposing an alternative, more ecological metaphysical scheme.

Ontological pluralism is easy to define, but not as easy to understand. It is the metaphysical position which suggests that there are more than one, or two (or three, or any finite number…), of ways of being. Reality is the ongoing composition of a multiplicity of more or less overlapping modes of existence. We are so used to thinking of reality being unified, a finished One, that the possibility of its becoming many may at first seem like a terrifying prospect. To the extent that modern inheritors of the liberal tradition really understand it’s implications, it should be terrifying, since it dissolves all our hubristic certainties about ourselves and the world, about who and where we think we are. Part of the rationale behind the modern bifurcation of nature is that defining nature or matter as inert, dead stuff helped us establish our own identity as free agents. To challenge the inertness of nature, to recognize its agency, is also to challenge liberal notions of individual human freedom. Challenging these notions does not mean dismissing them–we are agents, too; but it does mean re-imagining the very foundations of individual identity and social contract-based politics.

There are less radical forms of pluralism, like cultural relativism or worldview pluralism. Everybody knows there are other ways of knowing, other cultural practices with their own psychological and even perceptual ways of representing reality; moderns accept that there are multiple views of the world. But what nobody doubts is that one world underlies all the views that humans can have of it. Many views, one world; many cultures, one Nature.

Ontological pluralism is not multiculturalism, but multinaturalism. Multiculturalism, as Latour points out, is only the flip side of “mononaturalism.” Modern Western people have for a few hundred years thought of themselves as only a “half-culture,” since unlike all other earthly peoples, they were also the practitioners of something called Science, the faithful servants of something called Reason. Their Science and Reason, so the story goes, granted them access to an objective and universal Nature, an external world “out there” that for so much of human history had remained buried beneath cultural projections and superstitions.  Moderns sent their anthropologists to study exotic peoples in far away lands, always assuming that no matter how different those people appeared at first glance, beneath the surface the same universal laws belonging to the same physical nature must be governing their behaviors. Yes, we Westerners also have our subjective quirks, our psychological complexes and superstitions, but still, only we had the good fortune to have discovered a way to uncover Nature, to put aside our cultural idiosyncrasies so as to reach naked and indisputable matters of fact. It then became our sacred duty to educate others about the One True World. Prior to modern European science, medieval European religion had attempted something similar. There was one God, one final divine arbiter who decided what was Good and True for everyone. For modern scientific people, the one major difference is that the one Nature is understood to be entirely disenchanted and meaningless. Latour describes the paradox:

“… modernization compelled one to mourn the passing of all one’s colorful pretensions, one’s motley cosmologies, of all the many ways of life with their rich rituals. ‘Let us wipe away our tears,’ the modernists liked to declare, ‘let us become adults at last; humanity is leaving behind its myth-imbued childhood and is stepping into the harsh reality of Science, Technology and the Market. It’s a pity but that’s the way it is: you can either choose to cling to your diverse cultures, and conflicts will not cease, or, alternatively, you can accept unity and the sharing of a common world, and then, naturally (in every sense of the word), this world will be devoid of meaning. Too bad, love it or leave it.’ One may wonder whether one of the many metaphysical origins of the twentieth-century world wars did not consist of this odd way with which the West sought to pacify all conflicts by appealing to a single common world. How long can one survive in peace when torn by this impossible double bind with which modernizers have trapped themselves together with those they have modernized: nature known by reason unifies, but this unification is devoid of meaning?” (11-12).

Whitehead’s self-entitled “philosophy of organism” provides us with an example of a fully ecologized philosophy. Multinaturalism means neither science nor the universe it purports to study are ready-made unified wholes. There are as many sciences as there are natures. From a pluralist perspective, if wholeness is to exist, it must first be constructed and thereafter constantly maintained. Unity does not exist in advance of such composition. If any science qualifies as the science of “wholes”—and in a pluralist ontology, there are many wholes, not just One—it is ecology, which traditionally has been defined as the study of the relationship between organisms and environments. But in Whitehead’s scheme, the concept of an “environment” cannot just be taken for granted as a fixed, inorganic background. The environment is not, as Latour put it in his Gifford lectures on Gaia, “a mere frame devoid of any agency.” There is no Environment, there are only ever communities of other organisms. In an ontology of organism, physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological. In other words, ecology replaces physics as the foundational science.

An ontology of organism opens us to the possibility of cosmopolitics, a concept originally developed by Isabelle Stengers. Cosmopolitics has been articulated as a protest against what Whitehead calls “the bifurcation of nature,” the splitting off of human consciousness and values from everything physical and factual. We are left by this all too modern predicament, Whitehead tells us, having to somehow reconcile the “dream” of our common sense experience of an apparently meaningful world with the scientific “conjecture” of a mind-independent and so meaningless reality. Ontological pluralism, unlike modern dualistic and materialistic metaphysical schemes, rejects the division of appearance and reality, experience and nature, and instead suggests a panpsychic vision of things: “Everything perceived is in nature,” and everything in nature perceives. There is no bifurcation: to speak crudely, mind belongs to nature, is intrinsic to it.

Whitehead says in Process and Reality, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (50). Whitehead here alludes to perhaps his most significant influence, William James, who famously referred to the experience of pre-egoic infants as a “great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In A Pluralistic Universe, one of the last significant lectures James delivered before his death a year later, he suggested that “The common socius of us all is the great universe whose children we are” (lecture 1). Cosmopolitics calls upon us to recognize that the polis, the city, is not just built by and for us on a planet passive before our projects. We must wake up from the nightmare of bifurcation to our roles as creaturely citizens of an earth community.

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If modernity has culminated in the bifurcation of mononaturalist Science and multiculturalist politics, then the emergence of a nonmodern, ecological and so ontologically pluralistic civilization will require the reinvention of both. Not only must ecology replace physics at the foundations of the natural sciences, it must replace economics at the foundations of the social sciences, as well.

Cosmopolitics is an attempt to do just that, to re-imagine scientific practices in more democratic terms, and to re-imagine politics in a way that acknowledges the need to invent ways of coexisting—not just with people of our own color, country, or culture, not even just with other humans—but with all earth’s creatures. To democratize science doesn’t mean facts should be determined by popular opinion; rather, it means recognizing that scientific activity is always undertaken upon a landscape shaped by socioeconomic interests and fraught with political implications. Knowledge is an ecological affair, an ongoing and risky process of buiding alliances and relationships between humans and nonhumans across wide distances; it is not, despite modern epistemic pretenses, the product of an objectifying gaze from nowhere. Stengers points out the tendency many modern scientists and technologists have to “defer to ‘politics’ decisions that would have to be made about the use of data and techniques produced in new labs: that use will be whatever ‘we’ decide it should be. But this ‘we,’ purely human and apparently decisional, will intervene in a situation that will already be saturated with decisions made in the name of technique, science, and rationality. Politicians will demand that experts tell them who ‘we’ are from the scientific point of view.” [personal example with Marvin Minsky from 2007; another example is Francis Collins and Obama announcing the Brain Initiative].

Whereas early modern dualism and late modern monism alike produced “expert” scientists who claimed to have unmasked with objective certainty a truth hidden from common sense experience, pluralism is an intrinsically diplomatic ontology.

The pluralist responds to encounters with others under the assumption that reality is an ongoing and open-ended “geostorical adventure” of “planetary negotiation,” which is to say it is always in-the-making and never at rest in the possession of a isolated heroic knower. The ontological pluralist doesn’t falsely align fetishized ideas of “Science,” “Rationality,” and “Objectivity” on one side and oppose them to “belief,” “custom,” and “illusion” on the other. Instead of in every case sending in “the experts” to tell local populations how to solve their problems, assuming in advance that scientific knowledge is universal and that only science has the right to produce knowledge, every issue is approached diplomatically under the very different assumption that knowledge is relational, its claims conditional, and its construction, risky. Cosmopolitics is not cosmopolitanism, not rooted in the search for some abstract sense of universal humanity. The notion of “human rights” may have functioned in a liberatory way in some cases, but just as often, argues Stengers, it has served as a way of disqualifying those whose unique ways of life fail to fit the universal mold. Stengers criticizes this modern attempt to politically unify all peoples through an all too abstract notion of “humanity.” Such an attempt moves too fast, pretending to achieve in advance what can only be accomplished at the end, after much negotiation. As Latour puts it, “unity has to be the end result of a diplomatic effort; it can’t be its uncontroversial starting point.”

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Stengers links the failed notion of human rights to “the curse of tolerance,” the idea that so long as you keep your differences private, we can learn to live together in public. In other words, so long as you don’t take your own cosmology seriously and are willing to accept the strange mononaturalist/multiculturalist double-bind of modernity, then we can tolerate one another’s abstract “right” to exist. So long, of course, as you stay over there, in your own neighborhood, and don’t force me to deal with the dissonance of such a strangely bifurcated image of reality too directly. For this all too abstract form of peace would quickly dissolve if we concretely encountered one another’s differences. If there is to be a future cosmopolitical civilization, it will no longer accept the dichotomy between public and private life. We will have found a way to meet the challenge of inventing a means of living together within the same extended community. We will all have become diplomats, willing to exist in the tension-filled space between worlds, to accept that our own identities are always risked in encounters with others, acknowledging that our own world must be unfinished so long as it leaves “others” outside it.

So what is the take home of this assemblage of nonmodern Whiteheadian philosophical ideas? What is the relationship between his metaphysical scheme and the ecologization of our species, of our civilization?

How can he help us transform our cities from gas guzzling machines into creative contributors to life’s flourishing? How are we to convert his cosmological theory into a cultural and political practice that leads us home again, that allows us to remember that we are earthbound creatures inhabiting and transversing a plurality of interrelated places co-evolving at a multiplicity of speeds. We do not inhabit a unified space-time field determined by universal laws. We are not made of some fantastical stuff called “matter,” the most abstract, insensible, confused idea I’ve ever heard.  What I am suggesting is that Whitehead’s speculative cosmovision evokes an alternative form of consciousness, provoking a re-imagination of modern subjectivity; Whitehead heralds the transformation of the American Dream of human individuality and natural property into the Dream of the Earth, as Berry calls it, or geostory as Latour refers to it. Whitehead’s words work upon our souls like alchemical catalysts. His books are a psychedelic pharmacopoeia, a remedy for sick minds. He is a philosophical diplomat: he heals the divisions of our intellectual histories, not by rushing to unify them into a Single System, but by giving each perspective, each contrast, its place in a organic community of interrelated drops of experience somehow managing to hang together as a whole, not by necessity, by right, by divine fiat, but because of the persuasive allure of beauty freely calling all creatures toward harmony and order, toward cosmos.

The natural world, the universe, the cosmos, Nature, etc., is not something we can continue to imagine as apart from, other than, the human world, the polis, society. The cosmos is just as political as we are, just as much a society of agents vying with one another for power, for access to energy, to food, to sex, to status and attention. 

Beyond Materialism and Idealism, a Philosophy of Organism?

Levi Bryant offered some ideas about materialism earlier this week over at Larval Subjects. I read and commented on his post while screeching through the BART transbay tube on my commute home from work. My comment, asking about “ontological constructivism,” was rushed and ill formed. Now that I’m moving more slowly, and have a keyboard large enough for all ten of my fingers, I wanted to take the time to further expand and contextualize my question.

Bryant’s reflections on the paradoxes of materialism spoke precisely to some of the problematics emerging recently in a reading group I’m participating in at CIIS with Adam Robbert and others. We just finished Mark Taylor’s reader Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy. Prior to DiC we read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and prior to that Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. (Next is Deleuze and Guatari’s What Is Philosophy?). Bryant’s materialism is meant as a direct challenge to the authors excerpted in Taylor’s anthology. With Kant (with whom the reader begins), there began a line of thinkers committed to transcendental philosophy. This lineage has more recently been pejoratively renamed correlational philosophy by Meillassoux and other Speculative Realists. It may not be entirely fair to identify Derrida (with whom Taylor’s reader ends) as a transcendental thinker. But I do think I can say that, as a careful reader of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, his work must be understood as a respectful but nonetheless critical response to this tradition. You could almost say that Derrida’s texts were an attempt to out critique the critical (or transcendental) philosophers by bringing to attention that which is even more a priori than concepts and intuitions: namely, writing. As Derrida wrote in Of Grammatology, “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”–usually translated as “there is nothing outside of the text,” but perhaps best translated as “there is no outside-text.” For object-oriented thinkers like Graham Harman and Bryant, Derrida is public enemy number one (though for slightly different reasons). For Bryant, Derrida must be read as a linguistic correlationist, as one who denies the reality of anything outside the contextual domain of semiogenesis. We must, of course, remember that the play of différance prevents an author from finally fixing the meaning of the text (I almost said “of their text,” but textual ownership is precisely what Derrida is taking issue with). Derrida’s correlationalism is not, then, the sort that would place all objects in relation to a transcendental subject, since as I understand his deconstruction of traditional metaphysics, the subject itself (along with the objects it represents) only becomes possible in and through writing. Nonetheless, meaningful signs, even if infinitely contextual, for precisely this reason only ever point to themselves. There is no “Great Outdoors,” as Meillassoux says, that writing might grant us cognition of.

Derrida owes much to Saussure’s binary semiotic theory. I prefer a different starting point in regard to meaning-making: the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce’s triadic semiotics redistributes meaning beyond human signs, inviting us to consider the various ways other beings interpret and refer to themselves independently of us. Peirce, and other thinkers in his lineage like James and Whitehead, seem to me to stand outside the framework of Bryant’s post. These thinkers qualify as what I called “ontological constructionists” in my original comment. Unlike “social constructionists,” it is not merely we human beings who create all meaning. Rather, all beings, in becoming-with one another (and so becoming-other than themselves), are generative of meaning. For this reason, Whitehead generalized the notion of “society” such that it included organized collectivities of any kind (not just humankind).


As Bryant frames the correlational paradox, any thinker claiming to be a materialist necessarily “proceeds through concepts.” This despite the fact that materialists understand themselves to be “[attempting] to grasp that which is other than the concept.” Bryant wants to place matter beyond and before all thought as “absolutely exterior” and unrepresentable. This is all fine and well. The clear and distinct concepts of reflective self-consciousness cannot in any way touch the darkness of materiality. But I’d like to suggest that attending to the imaginal tides of affect and aesthesis as they flow to-and-fro across the fractal edges of conscious experience may help bridge the otherwise gaping chasm between mind and matter. Attending only to thought and conceptuality, or to transcendental structures of intentional directedness toward the eidos of appearing objects, artificially widens the gap. Dwelling instead upon the way emotional vectors vibrate through and between bodies, we begin to realize that the old abstract categories of mind and matter no longer hold any water. They leak. By entering into an aesthetic–or better, poetic–rather than a conceptual time-space, we no longer need to shroud matter behind the representational mirages projected onto it by a mind which, as materialism would have it, can only be conceptualized in absentia, as not present, as somehow both identical with and yet alien to materiality. I qualified the term “aesthetic” with “poetic” above, because it is all too easy to define aesthesis according to the misplaced concreteness, so prevalent among modern philosophers of both the empirical and rational 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,” contrasting it with the more foundational mode of “causal efficacy.” When I refer to entering an aesthetic or poetic time-space, I mean attending again to the causality of sensuality, to the way aesthesis links us up with real currents of energy in our cosmic, biotic, and psychic environs. This is James’ radical empiricism, adapted by Whitehead following his protest against the bifurcation of nature. I’ve written about this in a short essay on the importance of Wordsworth’s nature poetry for Whitehead’s account of perception. For Whitehead, nature is “what we are aware of in perception” (The Concept of Nature):

“For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyze how these various elements of nature are connected.

In making this demand I conceive myself as adopting our immediate instinctive attitude towards perceptual knowledge which is only abandoned under the influence of theory. We are instinctively willing to believe that by due attention, more can be found in nature than that which is observed at first sight. But we will not be content with less. What we ask from the philosophy of science is some account of the coherence of things perceptively known.

This means a refusal to countenance any theory of psychic additions to the object known in perception. For example, what is given in perception is the green grass. This is an object which we know as an ingredient in nature. The theory of psychic additions would treat the greenness as a psychic addition furnished by the perceiving mind, and would leave to nature merely the molecules and the radiant energy which influence the mind towards that perception. My argument is that this dragging in of the mind as making additions of its own to the thing posited for knowledge by sense-awareness is merely a way of shirking the problem of natural philosophy. That problem is to discuss the relations inter se of things known, abstracted from the bare fact that they are known. Natural philosophy should never ask, what is in the mind and what is in nature. To do so is a confession that it has failed to express relations between things perceptively known, namely to express those natural relations whose expression is natural philosophy. It may be that the task is too hard for us, that the relations are too complex and too various for our apprehension, or are too trivial to be worth the trouble of exposition. It is indeed true that we have gone but a very small way in the adequate formulation of such relations. But at least do not let us endeavor to conceal failure under a theory of the byplay of the perceiving mind.

What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream” (29-30).

The post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman treats this issue brilliantly in Emotion: A Comprehensive Phenomenology of Theories and Their Meaning for Therapy

“If energy were the underlying substrate of the universe, i.e., its ‘truth,’ and if emotion were the way in which it manifested itself to the mind, then the creative artist through his emotion would be apprehending this truth from within” (68).

So in summary, while I agree with Bryant’s criticism of the variety of transcendental, phenomenological, and (Saussurean) semiological philosophies of access for the way they reduce the mode of being of the non-human to that of the human, I do not think his bifurcated materialistic alternative provides us with a more coherent ontology. We’re left, instead, with irresolvable paradoxes (like the hard problem of consciousness, for example).