I had a friendly exchange yesterday with the cognitive scientist and philosopher Evan Thompson about his debate earlier this year with another cognitive scientist Owen Flanagan. The two distinguished thinkers disagreed about whether physicalism as currently understood can provide an adequate account of consciousness. I wanted to revisit several of the themes Evan and I discussed in our comment exchange. I suggested in a comment that, while I agree the transcendental/phenomenological perspective provides a knock-down argument against any sort of objectivist explanation of subjectivity, I’m not as certain that, having laid such dogmatism to bed, Husserlian phenomenology is capable of helping us re-construct a less naive, more robust form of ontological realism (although I do try to push the late Husserl toward such realism in this paper on ecophenomenology).

Maybe Evan isn’t as interested as I am in a post-transcendental attempt at realism. I have a lot of sympathy for the more constructivist enactive paradigm he, Francisco Varela, and Eleanor Rosch first articulated in The Embodied Mind (1993). But since my fateful encounter with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead [which occurred just about the same time I was reading Evan’s next book, Mind in Life (2007)], I realized I needed to think constructivism ontologically, rather than epistemologically. Which is to say, I needed to think being as a process of self-construction, rather than being constructed by thought.

Now to be fair, as I understand the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy that Varela and Thompson draw upon in their articulation of enactivism, nothing is to prevent us from interpreting the “dependent co-arising” of all things in ontological terms. Whitehead himself acknowledged that in certain respects his “process-relational” ontology bears more resemblance to certain stains of Indian and Buddhist than to Western thought (see Process and Reality, pgs. 244, 342-343). For Whitehead, every actual occasion of experience is internally related to every other actual occasion. This means that there is nothing in the universe that can exist independently of anything else (for Whitehead, this includes even God). Everything there is emerges in concert with everything else. On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly argued against the over-simplification that Whitehead reduces individual occasions of experience to their global relations (HERE, HERE, HERE). Like Varela, who attempts to displace the old substantialist self with a more flexible conception of an emergent “virtual selfhood” or “subject-pole” (as he describes it in this paper just before his untimely death in 2002), Whitehead articulates individuality in terms of the “subjective form” of each occasion–an occasion’s unique feeling-toned concern for and response to the data it receives from the past occasions out of which it emerges. In this sense there is a lot of overlap between a process ontology and enactivism.

Here is what Evan had to say in a comment under my last post about his debate with Owen Flanagan:

…in my own work I follow the trajectory that arises in the later Husserl and continues in Merleau-Ponty, and that calls for a rethinking of the concept of “nature” in a post-physicalist way—one that doesn’t conceive of fundamental nature or physical being in a way that builds in the objectivist idea that such being is intrinsically or essentially non-experiential. But, again, this point doesn’t entail that nature is intrinsically or essentially experiential (this is the line that panpsychists and Whiteheadians take). (Maybe it is, but I don’t think we’re now in position to know that.) All I want to say for now (or think I have grounds for saying now) is that we can see historically how the concept of nature as physical being got constructed in an objectivist way, while at the same time we can begin to conceive of the possibility of a different kind of construction that would be post-physicalist and post-dualist–that is, beyond the divide between the “mental” (understood as not conceptually involving the physical) and the “physical” (understood as not conceptually involving the mental). This is what I had in mind when I invoked “neutral monism” or “neutral non-dualism” in the exchange with Owen.

Evan also mentioned that he plans to read Isabelle Stengers‘ recently translated book Thinking With Whitehead, at which point he’ll have a better sense for exactly what prevents him from following Whitehead all the way. I look forward to his reflections on that front. For now, I’m encouraged by his invocation of “neutral monism,” a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had a tremendous impact on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of some substratum of “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s own brand of panexperientialism.

I’ll leave you with this lecture by David Kleinberg-Levin on Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, including his understanding of the elemental flesh of the world. Thinking with Whitehead, I’d argue, can help us follow the late Merleau-Ponty’s desire not only to unify the mind with the flesh of the body, but mind and body with the flesh of the world. In this way, as Levin puts it, things become a prolongation of my body, just as my body becomes a prolongation of the world. (The authors of the recently published Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought agree with the tremendous potential for cross-fertilization of these two thinkers).


Conference put on by the Interdisciplinary Dialogue Forum, a student group in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at CIIS.

The History of Access: An Introduction to the Speculative Turn – Sam Mickey and Adam Robbert

Ganga – River, Goddess, Thing – Elizabeth McAnally

The Astonishing Depths of Things – Sam Mickey

Objects in Action: Promiscuous Applications of an Ecological Realism – Adam Robbert

SR in 3 minutes – Sam Mickey

Wizards, Corpses and Ferris Wheels: The Ever-Weird Frontiers of Enlightened Activity – Aaron Weiss

Schelling’s Naturephilosophy: Platonic Lessons for Speculative Realism – Matt Segall

Participatory Realism: Two Cheers for Meillassoux – Keynote speaker Professor Jacob Sherman

Final Q&A

I’ve just finished part one of Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, Harman’s treatise on the relationship between the phenomenology of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Lingis and his object-oriented approach to philosophy. He is motivated by a desire to direct our attention to the things themselves, the independently existing objects of the world. It is a desire similar in spirit to Husserl’s famous directive: back to the things themselves!, but more radical in that his longing is less for descriptions of our attention than it is for adequate portrayals of the things themselves that aren’t stuck on issues of human access. Husserl’s work elaborates upon the intentional structure of consciousness, making clear that to be conscious is to be conscious of something. In other words, conscious subjectivity is constituted by its acts of objectification. Consciousness doesn’t access the world by interpreting a smear of raw sensory data, but always already perceives meaningful things: couches, water color paintings, and green coffee mugs.

Harman points out that the intentional unity of subject and object constituting consciousness’ relation to the world does not create an unbroken whole or “global purée,”  but rather a highly differentiated and layered matrix of relations between particular objects. When I direct attention to a coffee mug, I can still recognize a difference between myself as perceiver and the mug as a thing perceived. I can even recognize a difference within myself between the I that I am and the I that intends the mug.

As Harman puts it:

“Although in one respect the intentional act is a seamless fabric without parts, in another respect it is riddled with numerous interior objects that hypnotize me, that absorb my attention as I enjoy their sensuous facades and aim my attention at the illusive objects lurking beneath them. In short, the unified intentional experience is already a descent into its own particles.”

Harman doesn’t want to reject the important discoveries and re-orientations of the phenomenological tradition, he wants to extend them so that it becomes possible to imagine objects relating to one another, communicating with one another, independent of human consciousness. Intentionality, then, is not just a feature of human consciousness, but of the relationship between things themselves: the table intends the mug, the mug intends the coffee, just as I intend each of them.

There is so much more to be unpacked, and I’m excited by the prospect of bringing Harman into conversation with the likes of James Hillman, and perhaps even Rudolf Steiner. The similarities with the psychology of the former are sketched in my last post (which Harman noticed and found plausible). And Steiner’s richly textured ontology includes an etheric dimension that mediates between the unreachable substance of physical things (the mineral realm) and the pure qualities of presentational immediacy (the astral realm), which sounds similar to Harman’s call for an ontologization of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the flesh of the world, that mysterious carnal matrix that gives rise to both perceiver and perceived.

Here is an excerpt from Guerilla Metaphysics that might help make this connection to Steiner’s ontology more plausible (p. 24):

“We do not really dwell amidst objects, because they forever surpass our explorations of them, remaining inaccessible to us. But neither do we live among brute sensory givens, since there is no such thing as sensuous matter without objective form [b/c the essence of consciousness is intentionality]: a cacophony of random sound is already interpreted as a specific unit against its background, as are the minute colored points on computer screens. In short, we live in a strange medium located somewhere between substances and qualities, unable to touch either of them.”

It sounds to me like the strange medium he is talking about, which is neither physical nor ideational/presentational, is precisely what Steiner means by the etheric body. It isn’t the feelings and sensations of the private soul, nor is it the motions of minerals in the physical body. It is the sense-making, or imaginal processes of the etheric matrix, which is the place Steiner says thinking must come to dwell before any participatory epistemology is to be possible (he says the thinking of modernity and positivism is trapped in the brain, literally determined by the shape of the matter in the skull). I think Harman might be trying to enact this sort of space for thinking. Like Steiner, he seems to look at and feel into a layered and stratified world of real beings whose inner lives are not immediately accessible to consciousness.

It’s all still a jumbled mess of vaguely related ideas in my head at this point, but I’ll be trying to clarify my thoughts in more posts soon to come.