Process and Difference in the Pluriverse
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.
I’m sharing two lectures recorded for my online course this semester, Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. In these two modules, we are studying Latour’s recently translated book Facing Gaia.
“If we are to accomplish the impossible feat of (re)composing a group from a multiplicity or, equally impossible, making a plurality obey a common order, it is necessary above all not to start with beings with fixed opinions, firmly established interests, definitive identities and set wills. This would guarantee failure, for any work of composition appears only as an intolerable compromise, even a dishonest one, and would break, shatter or annihilate wills, opinions, interests and identities. Conversely, if we set out to ‘recognize’ all affiliations, to ‘take into account’ all interests, to ‘listen to’ all opinions, to ‘respect’ all wills, we would never manage to close the circle–neither one way nor the other–since multiplicities would triumph, doggedly stubborn in their irreducible difference. The only way of making the circle advance, of ‘cooking’ or ‘knitting’ politics, of producing (re)groupings, consists in never ever starting with established opinions, wills, identities and interests. It is up to political talk alone to introduce, re-establish and adjust them. For political life to be thinkable, utterable, speakable, it is therefore necessary for agents not to have fixed opinions but to be likely to change their minds; for them not to have an identity but affiliations that shift throughout the course of the debate; for them not to be sure of the interests they represent but for their wills to waver or, by contrast, to develop as the relations of all the other agents who make them talk and whom they cause to talk, gather together, and change. We can now understand the meaning of that fragile, contradictory, meticulous alchemy that the Sophists called autophuos, and which has nothing tautological about it, despite Socrates’ irony: he who talks does not talk about himself but about another, who is not one but Legion. Nothing less than this constitutes frank, authentic political expression.
If my hypothesis is correct, we can well imagine times when political talk will disappear or at least become so strange that it would immediately be banned. I am not thinking here of the practice of censorship of opinions, of a lack of freedom of speech regarding content. No, what I am referring to is a disease infinitely more serious, which might strike the very substance of political talk. By constantly despising this type of talk, constantly judging it by the yardstick of the faithful and transparent transfer of double-click information or power struggles, we may well end up depriving ourselves little by little of all its resources, as I have shown us to have done with science and religion–like by neglecting a road network we may end up making all journeys impossible and allowing only local relations. In these matters there is no reassuring destiny, as if talk were an inherent of the political animal and we could count on the nature of things for this invaluable form of enunciation to be preserved. Invaluable and fragile, it survives only with meticulous care by a culture as delicate as it is artificial. By replacing distorted representation by faithful representation, impossible obedience by pedagogy, composition of new groups by rectilinear transfer of ‘relations of domination’, we may well finish off politics for good or, in any case, cool it down to the point of it dying of numbness, without even noticing, like a careless pedestrian lost in a blizzard.”
Friday, June 5th at 4:45pm:
Whitehead’s Non-Modern Philosophy: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse
Saturday June 6th at 2:30pm:
Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision
I have a lot to say about some of the questions that came up during the discussion (~58 minutes into the video), especially the issues that Terrence Deacon and Stu Kauffman brought up about life’s pervasiveness in the universe and whether “play” might exist in the non-biological world. I’ll be posting about these questions in the next few days…
[Update 6/11: Stu K. and I had breakfast the day after my talk to discuss the idea of a “physics of play.” Such a physics becomes possible given the panexperientialist basis of Whitehead’s ontology. I’m hoping we can co-author a paper on this… Stay tuned.]
Kastrup is confused by what I said in my original response to him regarding the room that ontological pluralism leaves for both the extraordinary experience of unity and the ordinary experience of plurality.
Ontological pluralism seems more true to experience (both common every day experience AND mystical experience), since it doesn’t deny the possibility of unity, it only denies that things are necessarily unified.
My claim here is pretty straightforward: everyday experience is multifaceted, while mystical experience is unitive. I’m not denying the testimony of mystics as to the unity of reality. Ontological pluralism grants the possibility of such unity. It just also incorporates the obvious fact of commonsense experience, as well. Mystical experiences are extraordinary precisely because they don’t happen all the time. So rather than ignore the plurality of the everyday experiences we spend almost every waking and dreaming moment of our lives in, I want to acknowledge that they, too, have ontological significance.
I’ll quote William James from the essay I mentioned in my original post, A Pluralistic Universe (available online in its entirety). As I said then, I think his arguments against monistic idealism are pretty convincing. They convinced me of the merits of pluralism, at least:
The sum of it all is that the absolute is not forced on our belief by logic, that it involves features of irrationality peculiar to itself, and that a thinker to whom it does not come as an ‘immediate certainty’…is in no way bound to treat it as anything but an emotionally rather sublime hypothesis. As such, it might, with all its defects, be, on account of its peace-conferring power and its formal grandeur, more rational than anything else in the field. But meanwhile the strung-along unfinished world in time is its rival:reality MAY exist in distributive form, in the shape not of an all but of a set of eaches, just as it seems to—this is the anti-absolutist hypothesis. Prima facie there is this in favor of the eaches, that they are at any rate real enough to have made themselves at least appear to every one, whereas the absolute has as yet appeared immediately to only a few mystics, and indeed to them very ambiguously. The advocates of the absolute assure us that any distributive form of being is infected and undermined by self-contradiction. If we are unable to assimilate their arguments, and we have been unable, the only course we can take, it seems to me, is to let the absolute bury the absolute, and to seek reality in more promising directions, even among the details of the finite and the immediately given. (lecture 3)
The cosmic unity intimated by mystics may indeed be the case. All the ontological pluralist argues is that this unity is not necessarily the case, that is, is not the end of the story metaphysically speaking. If we say it is the end of the story, we negate everyday experience, explaining it away as mere appearance. This, to my mind, is the worst kind of reductionism, in that it denies what is most obvious to our experience in favor of some hidden truth accessible only to a special few.
In light of the elitism implied by monistic idealism, a final word on the relationship between politics and metaphysics is in order. Kastrup worries that I conflate two entirely different categories when I say that a monistic ontology carries with it the risk of a totalitarian politics. “Does anyone seriously think that our (political) views and preferences bear any relevance to what nature is?” Kastrup asks. “Personally,” he continues, “I am interested in what is true, not what I’d prefer to be true.” I’d reverse his statement and point out that the way a society comes to terms with what reality is undoubtedly influences they way they compose a common world together (the composition of a common world is my definition of politics). I am not suggesting some sort of relativism wherein reality is decided by an opinion poll. But can anyone really deny the way metaphysical beliefs (consciously stated or not) correspond to the shape a society takes?
I unpack my thoughts on the relationship between politics and ontology in the videos below: