Video of my lecture: an introduction to German Idealism/Romanticism

Below is my lecture on German Idealism and Romanticism given yesterday (Sept. 30) for MA students enrolled in an Introduction to Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness course at CIIS.

On the need for mediating concepts…

I posted this on FaceBook in a thread about humanities departments needing to get over Aristotle’s biology and was told to stop spamming, so I suppose I’d better just post it here instead.


If contemporary biology is going to throw out “purpose” and “essence” as concepts, it needs to throw out correlate concepts like “accident,” as well. I’d want to affirm that individual organisms were not planned in advance by God’s envisionment of the eternal forms as divided into a particular array of genera and species. By definition, a unique individual exists in excess of any abstract universal, whether at the special or general level in the chain of being. Even if there is such a Platonic God envisioning eternal objects, this envisionment could not determine the playing out of cosmic evolution. If time is truly evolutive–if it is a creative advance and not just a collision of particles–then even an all-knowing, all-powerful Laplacian God could not have known in advance (on “the first day”) what the physical universe would become in the last (today). We can’t think the realities of earth and sky in Aristotle’s terms anymore. No more purposes or essences determining species, but no more “accidents” or “mutations” determining them, either.

Organisms are negentropically powered homeodynamic systems that emerge, transform, and go extinct in the course of historical time. They live only by surfing thermodynamic gradients in their local environments. When these physical energy currents shift courses, organisms can either adapt or die. But so long as organisms meet the minimal entropic requirements of their energy environment, they are ‘free’ to evolve creatively. They can drift and are not simply shaped by pre-existing niches. Niches emerge alongside the creative decisions of organisms and are the not one-way causes of speciation. Random mutation and natural selection alone cannot account for the current or future biosphere (as Stu Kauffman is fond of repeating in ever-more convincing terms:

This doesn’t mean organisms are pre-programed by eternal forms, this means there is a non-random, non-programed “creative” aspect to the evolution of life. So gone are the ancient concepts of Creator and creature, Mind and matter, Essence and accident, Purpose and perversion, etc. What we need now are mediating concepts like Creativity, Imagination, Emergence, Expression, etc.

See also this essay on Whitehead’s ontologization of evolution.

Notes on Intro and Ch. 1 of “Difference and Repetition” by Gilles Deleuze

As Adam/Knowledge Ecology has mentioned, a few of us are doing a reading group on Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. Here are my notes for our first session.

Notes for Introduction and Chapter 1 of Difference and Repetition by Deleuze

By Matt Segall

Preface: Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition is an initiatory text that, rather than putting the Cogito on trial or trying to out judge the judging ego according to its own rules, instead goes to war with the Self as an outlaw, seeking to destroy and dismember it without concern for the Self’s laws or habits. D & R is a work of philosophical terrorism, a concept-machine that lobs semiotic grenades and launches metaphoric missiles that do more than explode in the sky like fireworks: Deleuze’s ideas are weapons of cruelty that erupt from the ground, not displays of celebration in the air. Deleuze seems to argue that the only way to unmask the ego, to reveal it for the mere ghost that it is, is to scare it to death, to force it over the edges of representation, whether organic or orgiastic. In showing the Self the empty form of time, Deleuze dissolves it. Unlike the beautiful soul, who understands all difference merely as misunderstanding, as though he were standing on a field of battle as a justice of peace (52), Deleuze rejects all notions of common sense, notions of what “everyone” supposedly knows, since this “everyone” is precisely no one in particular. On the other hand, Deleuze seeks to redeem difference from the sinful and accursed lot it has been given within the regime of representation. If his project to compose a philosophy of difference succeeds, it is because what “at the outset seemed monstrous, demanding expiation, and could be alleviated only by representative mediation,” in the end becomes “the most innocent difference, the state of innocence and its echo” (67).

1) Two Kinds of Difference: Kind and Degree (Bergson’s Revenge)

To understand Deleuze, we have to understand the difference between differences in kind and differences in degree, even if, all things being different in themselves, this difference turns out to be only one of (differential) degree.

Deleuze’s philosophical method repeats Bergson’s, who repeats Plato’s: it is the method of division, of the authentication of the singular by tracing its genetic roots, following its line of descent into the ground. This method is opposed to the (Aristotlean, Hegelian) method of identification of the special (by analogy, resemblance, or contradiction) with the general:

“Difference is not between species, between two determinations of a genus, but entirely on one side, within the chosen line of descent…It is a question of making the difference, thus of operating in the depths of the immediate, a dialectic of the immediate. It is a dangerous trial without thread and without net, for according to the ancient custom of myth and epic, false claimants must die” (60).

Deleuze’s philosophical method proceeds by generating differences in kind where before, there was only a confused coherence, an illusory identity, an impure mixture, or an errant resemblance, resulting from both the habitual (passive/unconscious) repression of the discontinuous multiplicity of the ground, (the ground is different in kind from all the differences in degree it produces on the surface), and from the projection of the clear and distinct ideas of the self-identical ego onto the representational screen. Deleuze slices a razor across the center of this screen, not just to cut it in half (the line of limitation), or even to fold it in two (the plane(s) of opposition), but to reveal the depth behind it (see pgs. 50-51).

Deleuze learns from Bergson that the root of all badly analyzed composites and confused differences generated by the representational image of thought is the conflation of differences in kind with differences in degree.

A difference in kind is a genetic difference, a difference that rises from the depths, as an affirmation of the depths, to “make itself” (28), a difference that distinguishes itself from a ground that does not distinguish it.

A difference in degree is a special difference, a difference that appears as already made or determined, a superficial difference that does not itself repeat or express the genetic activity of the ground and so can be understood only negatively.

Further, we learn from Bergson (and Whitehead, in his own way) that time is different in kind from space: space is extensive and time is intensive or genetic. The spatial difference between matter and perception, for example, is a matter of degree, of speed, while the temporality of the élan vital makes it different in kind from matter, perception, or any merely external movement measurable by rulers or clocks. The élan is the differenciator, the creative process or genetic activity that instigates all apparent movement without itself ever appearing in physical space (as a body) or psychic time (as an image). Deleuze’s is a philosophy of difference, which makes it also a vital philosophy, a philosophy of life.

2) Learning is not imitation (pgs. 22-23, 25), it is the successful synthesis of incarnating signs (the ocean’s waves) with spiritual signals (the pre-individual thoughts of the swimmer’s dissolved self): “Learning takes place not in the relation between a representation and an action (reproduction of the Same) but in the relation between a sign and a response (encounter with the Other)” (22).

Deleuze’s education in difference is a spiritual exercise that kills God, dissolves the cosmos, and fractures the Self. Or it multiplies gods, cosmoi, and selves, generating new habits, desiccating old ones. “There is something amorous–but also something fatal–about all education” (23).

Learning is always takes place at a level deeper, more singular, than any generalized method of teaching can hope to reach:

“…beneath the generalities of habit in moral life we rediscover singular processes of learning. The domain of laws must be understood, but always on the basis of a Nature and a Spirit superior to their own laws, which weave their repetitions in the depths of the earth and of the heart, where laws do not yet exist” (25).

3) Theater of Philosophy

Kierkegaard no longer simply reflects on theater (like Hegel and Aristotle, who “represent concepts instead of dramatizing ideas” [10]), he “lives the problem of masks, [he] experiences the inner emptiness of masks and seeks to fill it, complete it, albeit with the ‘absolutely different’–that is, by putting it into all the difference between the finite and the infinite, thereby creating the idea of a theater of humor and of faith” (8-9).

Theater of Repetition v. Theater of Representation =

“In the theater of repetition, we experience pure forces, dynamic lines in space which act without intermediary upon the spirit, and link it directly with nature and history, with a language which speaks before words, with gestures which develop before organized bodies, with masks before faces, with spectres and phantoms before characters–the whole apparatus of repetition as a ‘terrible power’” (10).

-Nietzsche’s Dionysian dance of life or Kierkegaard’s Christian leap of faith? (10-11)

  1. History of Philosophy (30-42) from Aristotle (being-genus-species), to Duns Scotus (neutral univocity of being), to Spinoza (affirmative univocity of being=pantheism), Nietzsche (eternal return of the different)…

“The history of philosophy has always been the agent of power in philosophy, and even in thought. It has played the repressors role: how can you think without having read Plato, Descartes, Kant and Heidegger, and so-and-so’s book about them? A formidable school of intimidation which manufactures specialists in thought – but which also makes those who stay outside conform all the more to this specialism which they despise. An image of thought called philosophy has been formed historically and it effectively stops people from thinking” (13).

5) Organic v. Orgiastic Representation:

“Orgiastic representation has the ground as its principle and the infinite as its element, by contrast with organic representation which retains form as its principle and the finite as its element” (42-43).

Organic representation (e.g., Aristotle, Spinoza) produces knowledge of finite things according to the requirements of the identity of the concept in general. It can produce no concept of difference in itself, since differences are always made extrinsic to the substantial identities of things, never internal to these things.

  • “Four shackles of mediation” (29, 34) in organic representation subject difference to
    • 1) identity of concept
    • 2) opposition of predicates
    • 3) analogy of judgement
    • 4) resemblance of perception
  • But is there not “an irreducible ground which continues to act under the apparent equilibrium of organic representation?” (35)…

Orgiastic representation (e.g., Hegel, Leibniz) discovers the infinite within itself and its objects and peers over the limits of the organized to reveal “the womb in which finite representation never ceases to be born and to disappear, to be enveloped and deployed within orgiastic representation” (43)

But, orgiastic representation, in that it remains foundational, still does not free itself from the principle of identity as a presupposition of representation: “it remains subject to the condition of the convergence of series in the case of Leibniz and to the condition of the monocentering of circles in the case of Hegel” (49). Identity remains the foundation, even while it is given infinite value and rendered coextensive with the whole, thereby reigning over existence itself.

The Large and the Small– Hegel and Leibniz overcome the false choice by making the large and the small coincide at infinity; however, Leibniz says the infinite of the finite through its infinite smallness (differential calculus), while Hegel says the infinite of the finite through its infinite largeness (the wholeness of the True Idea), such that difference is represented as contradiction and negation (44-45).

“If Hegel discovers in serene representation the intoxication and restlessness of the infinitely large, Leibniz discovers in the clear, finite idea the restlessness of the infinitely small, a restlessness also made up of intoxication, giddiness, evanescence and even death…the difference between Hegel and Leibniz is a matter of two ways of going beyond the organic” (45).

Contradiction v. Vice-diction- Hegel begins with the essential=genus, while Leibniz begins with the inessential (46).

6) Task of Modern Philosophy: Overturn Plato? (59)

Deleuze argues that Plato’s philosophy, though showing an undeniable preference for the One, had not yet become representational by succumbing to the abstract movement of mediation, since it still unfolded in the presence of brute, immediate facts. Physis/natura naturans had not yet been lost to it: “The Heraclitan world still growls in Plato” (59).

Deleuze distinguishes himself from Plato’s method of division when Plato enters the “play of myth” in order to trace an Idea’s line of descent according to the logic of participation (61). According to Aristotle, Plato lacks mediating concepts and so must resort to myth to provide “the imaginary equivalent of conceptual mediation” (61). Plato’s myth of a eternal return of metampsychosis is a sort of “story-repetition,” a myth of the turning and returning of the souls which circulate above the celestial fault. Plato’s mythic grounding of philosophy “always involves a further task to be performed, an enigma to be resolved. The oracle is questioned, but the oracle’s response is itself a problem. The dialectic is ironic, but irony is the art of problems and questions” (63). The Platonic art of problems becomes, when non-identically repeated by Deleuze, the genetic method of his philosophy of difference (the method of creating one’s own problems by marking new differences in kind where before only differences in degree were perceived).

Levi Bryant Misreading Whitehead?

Re-posting my comment to Bryant’s recent criticism of Whitehead and process-relational thought below:

I’m not so sure treating an actual occasion as a “bundle of prehensions” is at all faithful to Whitehead’s scheme. Maybe you arguing that some other aspect of his thought forces him into an inconsistency on this point? If that’s not what you’re suggesting, then I fail to understand how an actual occasion’s process of concrescence–which Whitehead insists is self-created and transcends the whole of the past universe in a moment of private self-enjoyment–could be reduced to a “bundle of prehensions.” Don’t forget Whitehead’s formula of Creativity: “the many become one, and are increased by one.” It seems to me you’re selectively ignoring Whitehead’s emphasis on the distinct and novel oneness produced by each occasion’s concrescence.

I think Bryant is making the same mistake about Whitehead that Harman makes. See my earlier post in response to Harman.

Whitehead’s Endo-Theology

Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects has laid down a clear and clarifying plumb-line definition for a contentious word that finds itself being thrown around the OOO blogosphere from time to time:  Correlationism. It has a fascinating biography. Harman recently offered his version of its history and conceptual origin.

Bryant’s was a very helpful post for me. His shift in emphasis from internal/endo-relations to external/exo-relations is definitely the sort of provocation contemporary thought needs to stir it from its humanist dreams and awaken it to the painful light of climate change and mass extinction. I wonder, though, if he means to include Whitehead among those internalists who fail to offer an adequate account of how ruptures in reality (sudden separations or novel connections) are possible…

I’d argue the fundamentally atomistic nature of actual occasions, as well as their capacity for negative prehension and conceptual reversion, makes room for the kind of creative/destructive relations among relata that Bryant wants to preserve. Whitehead’s remains an internally related universe, there’s no doubt about that. But its a universe just as clearly perpetually dividing from itself (Creativity=many become one, and increase by one).

In further agreement with Bryant, for Whitehead, no society is finally safe from disintegration. Enduring relations are fragile in the extreme. But when societies do manage to endure, they are not just bundles of qualities projected on the screen of bare sense-perception; rather, they become self-creating subject-superjects, real individual actors in the world in possession of their own unique and definite characteristics.

Where Bryant and Whitehead probably begin to differ rather starkly is on the issue of how to account for the qualitative character distinguishing each complex society of occasions as the individual that it is (in Circus Philosophicus, Harman calls this an object’s “style”). Whitehead has recourse both to the unique telos of each occasion’s subjective aim, and to the ingression of some relevant set of eternal objects. The initial relevancy of eternal objects to any finite occasion’s situation is a result of the harmonizing attunement sung by divinity at the origins of time.

Whitehead’s God is not the creator or designer of the world, however, but the fellow sufferer of its ongoing re-creation by Creativity. The song and the singer who tunes our universe is an ancient accident of Creativity.

Time is a moving image of eternity originating in the tension between the poles of beginning and ending, what Whitehead calls the primordial and consequential natures of God (two adjectives, one noun). If the beginning is God’s act of finite decision amidst infinite creative potential, the ending is the fact of God’s recollection of the diversity of actualities into a whole.

While any given society will surely some day pass away, each and every occasion of experience composing it achieves objective immortality in the eternally resurrecting body of divine memory.

Whitehead’s Divine Function (response to Knowledge Ecology)

Adam/Knowledge Ecology has responded to my comment about the role of the divine in Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. Let me say at the get go that Whitehead himself acknowledged that he didn’t sufficiently work out the relationship between God and the World in Process and Reality. I approach Whitehead’s scheme, then, as a hacker might go to work on a buggy program, casting aside what doesn’t work and building on what seems most promising. I think there is something profound about his underlying intuition concerning the divine’s power as that of a persuader, rather than a coercer, even if his explicit formulations seem to fall short of a coherent description of how exactly this would play out metaphysically.

Whitehead’s dipolar deity is intended to be a derivative notion of his conceptual categories. He had far more to say about God’s primordial pole than God’s consequent pole; he mentions the latter only a handful of times, always obscurely, while the former, the primordial pole, fits relatively clearly into his conceptual apparatus as that which values a definite set of eternal objects to provide the aesthetic lures that are the condition for the possibility of a cosmos. God’s primordial nature is eternal and so conditions Creativity, translating its immensity into something that finite actual occasions can decide upon and enjoy as distinct qualitative moments of experience. God’s consequent nature, in turn, is conditioned by Creativity: despite God’s attempt to restrain its relentlessly blind rush toward novelty, Creativity nonetheless breaks through to disturb the ordered universe as the freedom of each finite actual entity to decide upon its own subjective form. Creativity is the constant disruption of the constancy that would otherwise reign over things from eternity. God isn’t just eternal, but also has a consequent pole, which is God’s passive reception of Creativity in the form of the free decisions of all actualities. In God’s consequent pole, God becomes a fellow sufferer with all other creatures in the trammels of physical time.

Perhaps “God”–a term weighed down by thousands of years of ontotheological baggge–is no longer appropriate as a descriptor. Whitehead suggests that his divinity is more like ancient conceptions of a World-Soul, or anima mundi, in that it is involved in and not external to the universe. Indeed, it is in some sense nothing other than the universe itself as a social actuality, or organismic togetherness. The divine is the cosmic animal, the universal organism.

Part of the reason Whitehead was lead to posit a divine function was that he saw no other way to coherently speak cosmologically. If there is no superordinate principle of valuation to bring all finite occasions into harmony, there is no cosmos. There is only the multitude of finite entities. Granted, the harmonious ordering of the universe so miraculously uncovered by the last several centuries of scientific investigation may be entirely contingent. Whitehead’s God is, after all, an accident of Creativity. There is nothing necessary about harmony. What, then, is responsible for an admittedly contingent harmony? Divinity cannot be marshaled as an explanation here, a move that is often and rightly criticized. There is a principle of irreducibility at work in Whitehead similar to that at work in object-oriented ontology described by Adam. For one entity or set of entities to explain another is akin to reducing the explained entity away. Whitehead’s philosophical method has nothing to do with explanation. He describes the task of philosophy as “sheer disclosure,” making it akin to poetry in the sense that its propositional expressions succeed only when they increase, rather than erase, our wonder at the astonishing fact(s) of existence.

To return to the question, then: what is responsible for the contingent order of the universe? Whitehead, like OOO, re-constructed causality in terms of aesthetics. Entities relate to one another erotically, not simply mechanically. All physical motion, active or passive, is emotion. Mechanical interaction is secondary to organic transaction, which is to say that internal relations supersede external relations. Every entity is quite literally inside of every other entity. A tension is generated within this mutual interiorization due to the desire of each entity to exist in and for itself apart from others, which is where the explosion of qualities described so beautifully by Harman (as a “sensual ether”) comes in. So, wherefrom harmony and order? From the erotic lure of beauty calling to each actuality non-coercively compelling it to dance in rhythm with its local nexus. Of course, notes of dissonance are often sounded amidst the song of the spheres, but at least (so far) on the macro scale, these dissonances have been gathered back up into a cosmic chord. For 14 billion years, cosmogenesis has remained harmonious enough to utilize disruption and chaos as an engine for the generation of higher forms of organization again and again. The dissonances erupting within the microcosm of human society are somewhat more troubling… Whitehead’s solution to the problem of evil is celebrated by many process theologians, but as I continue to study Schelling (who seems to have taken the difficulty of theodicy more seriously), its becoming apparent that perhaps more needs to be said about the proclivity of humanity to swerve away so drastically from cosmic harmony.  A problem for another post, perhaps… The ontological dimension of evil is admittedly an embarrassing issue to approach in a modern age as self-consciously philanthropic as ours.

Returning to Whitehead…

After finishing my first comprehensive exam on Schelling, its now time to dive back into Whitehead. For starters, Adam over at the new minimalist Knowledge Ecology has recently been posting brilliant snippets of what I believe is a longer tract he is writing about the ecology of ideas. Here is one titled “The Alien Light“:

On an earth without humans the elephants are mourning their dead and the stars are burning with an alien light. Bees and wasps are swarming from flower to flower, targeting pollinated landing pads rich with colors of a unique visible spectrum; their buzzing messengers return with good news for the rest of the hive. Bacteria move along chemical gradients, seeking out the sugary sweetness of glucose; plankton float in the water before being consumed by baleen whales. Ancient trees cast long shadows, forcing young saplings to sprout leaves in new directions; the shadows themselves are real. The universe does not beget qualities through the emergence of the human alone; the tangled bank of the ecosystem is already filled with the rustling of leaves, croaking of frogs, and thrashing of salmon. Red, gold, and turquoise are carvings of things made by human eyes and minds, but they represent only a small diorama of the available spectrum of aesthetic experiences, an aesthetic dimension unfolding for billions of years before the arrival of the human.

A commenter asked Adam what exactly the meaning of “available” is in the context of the aesthetic experiences of the cosmos. Adam responds by saying “available” may be the wrong word, since he doesn’t think

there are something like “available qualities” just floating around, pre-existing their experience by some organism that enacts them. The problem would be that this would imply that there is something like a standing reserve of pre-existing qualities just waiting to be discovered.

I responded as follows:

I wonder where Whitehead’s eternal objects fit in to this question concerning the “availability” of qualities. These qualities are not actual until experienced by an organism, but they are nonetheless at least potentially real without these organisms. These potencies are the aesthetic lures of Whitehead’s creative cosmos. They are mediated by the divine organism, or anima mundi, who envisages an ordered totality of possibile qualities capable of shaping a given cosmic epoch. Without this divine mediation, the potential for qualitative valuation and so cosmic ordering would be infinite, which means there would be no value or cosmos at all, just a flood of pure relentless chaotic creativity.

So eternal objects aren’t exactly a “standing reserve” of pre-existing qualities, though they seem to be something like this at first. They aren’t exactly this, though, since they in no way pre-existper Whitehead’s ontological principle. Eternal objects are potentials for experience, not actualities. They are only somewhat like a standing reserve in that some finite set of eternal objects is prehended by God in order to get a cosmos to emerge out of chaotic creativity. But it doesn’t seem quite right to conceive of God as a mere store house of ideas. God is an organism, which is to say God is concerned about the ideas he/she/it envisions.