Nietzsche’s and Whitehead’s post-nihilist pluralistic process philosophies (part 2)

Since my post a few days ago (“The ‘innocence of becoming’: Nietzsche, Whitehead, and Nihilism as a Pathological Transitional Stage between Monism and Pluralism“), I’ve re-read chapter 4 of William Connolly’s The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (2013). Here is his summation of that chapter, which compared Nietzsche’s and Whitehead’s process philosophies:

“It must be emphasized that the positive spirituality Whitehead pours into his speculative philosophy is at least as affirmative as that of Nietzsche, and more consistently so. These two process philosophers are thus worthy protagonists from whom others can draw sustenance: they advance contending, overlapping cosmic creeds that speak to today; they address the spiritual quality through which a creed is lived in relation to others; and they throw up for grabs a set of established, complementary assumptions during a period when many constituencies both feel and suppress doubts about those assurances. Each, at his best, argues with the carriers of other creeds while inviting their proponents to fold positive spiritualities into their creedal relations…Nietzsche and Whitehead articulate the planetary and cosmic dimensions in diverse concepts and affective tones that also touch, though neither may have anticipated how densely planetary processes with differing degrees of self-organizing power are entangled today with local, regional, and global issues. Each expresses, in his inimical way, a spirit of deep attachment to a cosmos of dispersed, conditioned processes; each, if he were to confront the contemporary condition, might appreciate the potential contribution an ethos of existential gratitude forged across territories, constituencies, and existential creeds could make to addressing the fragility of things. Or so I project into the magisterial Whitehead and the agnostic Nietzsche. The task, merely launched here, is to draw selective sustenance from each to think our place in the cosmos, to come to terms with the fragility of things at local, regional, global, and planetary sites, and to fend off the existential resentment that threatens to become severe under late modern conditions” (176-178).

As you can see, Connolly counts Whitehead and Nietzsche as allies in his push for a pluralist ontopolitics. Even so, he levels several potentially devastating critiques. I wanted to focus on his attempt to “qualify” two of Whitehead’s most enigmatic categories: “God” and “eternal objects.” Donald Crosby also critiques these concepts in his own comparison of Nietzsche and Whitehead. Many browsers of Whitehead’s writings praise him for his concepts of “Creativity,” “prehension,” “actual occasion,” and “concrescence,” but want nothing whatsoever to do with what they perceive to be his gratuitous theological constructions, most infamously his dipolar creaturely “God” and his indeterminate and existentially deficient but always and everywhere “ingressing” “eternal objects.” Some scientific materialists have suggested that, if Whitehead’s conceptual scheme cannot survive the removal of its theological components, then it must be buried in the graveyard of history’s bold but mistaken philosophical systems. If Whitehead’s universe is really god-infused, the materialists say, then his speculative adventure in cosmology is for that reason also made irretrievably irrelevant for any modern, scientific, rational investigations of nature.

The problem with this assessment of Whitehead’s scheme, as I understand it, is that the story of modern scientific rationality and its technological mastery over matter has itself already been made irretrievably irrelevant by the planetary scale of the ecological crisis it helped to bring about. Nature is not at all like what the moderns thought she was. Her mechanical “laws” turn out to be more like organic tendencies–tendencies whose stability we, as living earthlings, are beginning to have the power (conscious or otherwise) to alter at genetic and geological scales. The supposedly secularized concept of Nature invented by Descartes, Spinoza, Newton, and Galileo proved to be utterly unprepared for the thermodynamic, electromagnetic, quantum, relativistic, and complexity revolutions of 19th and 20th century science. Nature can no longer be depoliticized, denuded of all subjective quality, moral and aesthetic value, and creative potency. Nature is more like a goddess than a machine.

Whitehead’s theology cannot be separated from his ontology. Or at the very least, Whitehead begs us to take seriously his philosophical commitment to avoiding granting God any unique magical powers not native to every other entity in the universe. God is not a separate type of entity, but a conditioned creature like every other actual entity. But at the same time, Whitehead insist on the necessity of God’s “unconditioned conceptual valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects” in order to secure the possibility of the ingression of relevant novelty into the experience of finite actual occasions:

“Apart from God, eternal objects unrealized in the actual world would be relatively non-existent for the concrescence in question. For effective relevance requires agency of comparison, and agency of comparison belongs exclusively to actual occasions” (Process and Reality, 31).

God’s primordial nature may in certain of Whitehead’s expressions seem “eternally fixed,” as Crosby complains (68). But when read in imaginative conjunction with what Whitehead has to say about God’s consequent nature, with the way God is itself conditioned by the creative advance of the actual universe, this fixity quickly dissolves into something that looks a lot like Nietzsche’s universe of “multiple interacting force fields ungoverned by an overriding center” (as described by Connolly in TFT, 168). Whitehead’s own variety of perspectival panexperientialism is more Hesiodian than Connolly acknowledges when he contrasts Nietzsche’s strong attraction to “the contending gods of Hesiod” with the magisterial Whitehead’s supposed preference for the settled order of eternal unity. “In Greek thought, either poetic or philosophic,” Whitehead writes, “the separation between physis and divinity had not that absolute character which it has for us who have inherited the Semitic Jehovah” (PR, 94). Whitehead praises Plato’s proto-evolutionary cosmological insight into what the ancient Greeks referred to as “subordinate deities who are the animating principles for [certain] departments of nature” (PR, 94). Whitehead’s scheme follows the Timaeus in describing

“the creation of the world [as] the incoming of a type of order establishing a cosmic epoch. It is not the beginning of matter of fact, but the incoming of a certain type of social order” (PR, 96).

The order of the universe is historically emergent and socially embedded, not an ex nihilo emanation out of the Eternal One. It is “incoming,” but not from somewhere else, some distant Eternal Realm separate from and prior to the creative advance of the actual universe. Eternal objects on their own (as pure potentials) are “deficient in actuality,” such that it is only ever as a result of the decision of some actual occasion that they have an effect on anything. New order is “incoming” only relative to the cosmic epoch which preceded it.

Connolly worries that Whitehead’s concept of God as a “[conveyer] of new levels of complexity into the future” ignores the fragility of human civilization and indeed the inescapable eventual demise of life on earth (TFT, 175). It is not clear to me that Whitehead’s categorical scheme requires the preservation of the complexity aroused by any particular cosmic epoch’s primordially evaluated potential. My sense is that each cosmic epoch has its own emergent divinity, or world-soul. Perhaps features of the order of past epochs are inherited by incoming world-souls; perhaps everything is lost in the apocalyptic transition form one epoch to the next. Whitehead’s scheme leaves this particular question open, it seems to me. Catastrophic dissociation is just as possible as enduring organization in Whitehead’s processual pluriverse.

Connolly is also concerned that Whitehead’s “doctrine of eternal objects reduces the scope of possible creativity in the world” (163). Terrence Deacon expressed a similar concern to me. On my reading, Whitehead introduces the concept of eternal objects specifically to make the experience of relevant novelty possible. Far from reducing the ingression of novelty into the universe, an actual occasion’s experience of pure potentiality provides the necessary condition for such creative ingression. If prehensions were simply physical (that is, related to past actual occasions), nothing new could ever happen. Nature would remain utterly repetitive. Further, without granting the reality of potenials alongside actualities, there would be no way to distinguish the future from the past. Time would be reversible and homogeneous, not creative. The creative evolution of the universe is made possible by the creative decisions of actual occasions who can conceptually prehend the physical past in some more or less significant way as other than it was. If physical prehensions relate to the settled facts of the past, conceptual prehensions relate to the formal possibilities of the future left open by these facts. As Heisenberg expressed it, the question is (as quoted by Connolly, p. 153), how does “a unique actuality evolve from a matrix of coexistent potenia?” Whitehead’s answer is that each actual occasion, via the process of concrescence, makes definite (or concrete) what had been indeterminate (or abstract), adding another fact of realized value to the ongoing evolution of this cosmic epoch.


As Connolly puts it, both Whitehead and Nietzsche call us to “stretch human capacities by artistic and experimental means so as to respond more sensitively to other force fields” (161). Whether or not the aesthetics of their respective process ontologies can finally be made to cohere remains an open question for me. It seems at this point that Nietzsche’s preference for an “eternal return” of the same runs up against the more open-ended creativity enshrined in Whitehead’s scheme: “No thinker thinks twice” (PR, 29).

As I discussed in my first post, Nietzsche is suspicious of the concept of teleology; but Whitehead’s reformed concept of final causation links it to Nietzsche’s own favorite concept: power. For Whitehead, the concept of power entails both efficient and final causation, where its efficient aspect provides the objective “ground of obligation” inherited by new actual occasions, and its final aspect is the “internal principle of unrest” (PR, 29) expressed by the concrescence of each occasion. Actual occasions do not wield power like a subjective capacity, designing their behavior as if from beyond it. Power is not the capacity of a subject, but the capacity resultant in a subject. Whitehead completely abandons “the notion of an actual entity as the unchanging subject of change.” Instead, “an actual entity is at once the subject experiencing and the superject of its experiences” (PR, 29). In this sense, Whitehead’s re-formed teleology is immanent, self-organizing, and self-implicating. It retains nothing of old concept of teleology related to transcendently imposed design, where the Creator stands clearly and distinctly apart from its creation.

The “innocence of becoming”: Nietzsche, Whitehead, and Nihilism as a Pathological Transitional Stage between Monism and Pluralism

It is remarkable how similar Nietzsche’s musings on perspectivism are to Whitehead’s process-relational ontology. I was reminded of their congruence while re-reading excerpts from Nietzsche’s The Will to Power (published in Mark Taylor’s Deconstruction in Context). Of course, one might read Whitehead’s somewhat Platonic cosmological scheme (which includes reformed conceptions of teleology, god, eternal objects, and so on) as directly opposed to Nietzsche’s purely immanent approach. In this post, I want to suggest that Whitehead’s process-relational cosmology at least indicates one way forward toward a post-nihilistic theory and practice.


Nihilism, according to Nietzsche, is a “psychological state” characterized by the feeling of “being ashamed in front of oneself, as if one had deceived oneself all too long” with the belief that the event we call “the universe” is about something, that “something is to be achieved through the process–and now one realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing” (DiC, 192). Nietzsche’s first target in dismissing the supposed aim or telos of cosmic evolution seems to be the notion, long cherished by philosophers and theologians alike, that humanity is at the center of things and/or is the end toward which all things move. His second target is the human desire to achieve a “unity” of knowledge based in some supposed ontological monism: “underneath all becoming there is no grand unity” (DiC, 193). Finally, his third target is the metaphysical belief in a “true world.” Instead of the ancient philosophical dichotomy between the one true reality of Being and the many false appearances of becoming, Nietzsche desires to affirm “the reality of becoming as the only reality.” Unfortunately, despite his desire to affirm such an aimless, pluralistic, processual reality, Nietzsche finds himself stuck in a sort of nihilistic stasis: “one…cannot endure this world though one does not want to deny it.”

“Nihilism represents a pathological transitional stage,” writes Nietzsche. “What is pathological,” he continues, “is the tremendous generalization, the inference that there is no meaning at all” (DiC, 194). In other words, once the three traditional categories of Reason–Aim, Unity, Being–have been shown not to apply to the actual universe, but only to a fictitious universe invented by our psychological need for existential security, there remains the constructive task of re-evaluating the universe according to more adequate categories. “Adequate” not according to the standards of abstract Reason, which serve only to construe reality as though human consciousness was “the meaning and measure of the value of things,” but rather categories adequate to the standard of life itself, namely, the will to power.

“In order for a particular species to maintain itself and increase its power, its conception of reality must comprehend enough of the calculable and constant for it to base a scheme of behavior on it. The utility of preservation–not some abstract-theoretical need not to be deceived–stands as the motive behind the development of the organs of knowledge–they develop in such a way that their observations suffice for our preservation. In other words: the measure of the desire for knowledge depends upon the measure to which the will to power grows in a species: a species grasps a certain amount of reality in order to become master of it, in order to press it into service” (197-198).

Nietzsche’s interpretation of the human intellect is nearly identical to the evolutionary epistemology articulated by Bergson and James, perhaps Whitehead’s two most important philosophical influences. This view of the intellect as a pragmatic survival mechanism rather than a revealer of objective truth demands a total re-imagination of philosophy’s methods and goals. For Bergson, it meant abandoning intellect (at least for the purposes of philosophy) and developing a new organ of perception: philosophical intuition. For James, it meant construing philosophy “as more a matter of passionate vision than of logic…logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards” (A Pluralistic Universe, 710). For Whitehead, it meant analogizing philosophy to “imaginative art” (Modes of Thought, 117). Whitehead continues, in a rather Nietzschean vein: “The degeneracy of mankind is distinguished from its uprise by the dominance of chill abstractions, divorced from aesthetic content” (MoT, 123). Philosophy’s role, then, as a critic of abstractions, is to prevent “the abstractive experience” achieved by rational consciousness from “destroying its own massive basis for survival.” In Nietzsche’s terms, a post-nihilist philosophy must continually remind us that the concept “leaf” is but a passing puff of air compared with “the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth,” that is, the encounter with actual leaves, no two of which are ever the same (On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, excerpted in DiC, 218-219).

For Nietzsche, as for Whitehead, the classical concept of “Substance,” that most abstract and stable of eternal ideas, is to be replaced with the processual concept of Power. “The essence of power,” writes Whitehead,

“is the drive towards aesthetic worth for its own sake…It constitutes the drive of the universe. It is efficient cause, maintaining its power of survival. It is final cause, maintaining in the creature its appetition for creation” (MoT, 119).

But wait… Doesn’t this new concept of power sneak teleology back into our conception of the universe? Isn’t this just a regressive slide back into a pre-nihilistic psychology, rather than its overcoming? Here is where Nietzsche’s perspectivism comes into play. While he denies some overarching Meaning underlying all cosmic existence, Nietzsche does not deny meaning outright. Rather, he pluralizes it: the universe “has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings” (DiC, 198). In other words, Whitehead’s rendering of the concept of power as not simply an efficient, but also a final cause, is not the imposition of a Single Destination toward which all creatures are heading. Rather, each and every individual creature is free to create its own meaning: “…every creature different from us senses different qualities and consequently lives in a different world from that in which we live,” writes Nietzsche (DiC, 207). Do not misinterpret this pluralism of perspectives, this ontology of multiple meaning-makers, as the rather banal thesis that there are many perspectives on some underlying reality, material, ideal, or otherwise. This is not the empty sort of pluralism where a single reality is allowed to appear in many guises. “As if a world would still remain over after one deducted the perspectives!” No, this is full blown ontological pluralism:

“Every center of force adopts a perspective on the entire remainder, i.e., its own particular valuation, mode of action, and mode of resistance…There is no other mode of action whatever; and the ‘world’ is only a word for the totality of these actions. Reality consists precisely in this particular action and reaction of every individual part toward the whole … Appearance is an arranged and simplified world, at which our practical instincts have been at work; it is perfectly true of us; that is to say, we live, we are able to live in it: proof of its truth for us–the world, apart from our condition of living in it, the world that we have not reduced to our being, our logic and psychological prejudices, does not exist as a world ‘in itself’; it is essentially a world of relationships; under certain conditions it has a differing aspect from every point; its being is essentially different from every point; it presses upon every point, every point resists it…” (DiC, 207-208).

Nietzsche could very easily have been describing Whitehead’s ontology here. Of course, there remains the issue of working Whitehead’s conceptions of “God” and “eternal objects” into Nietzsche’s scheme. Can this be coherently accomplished? Whitehead’s God is meant as a secular replacement for the supernaturalist images of the past, a God who suffers with the world rather than a God who creates it from a transcendent beyond. In this sense, I think Whitehead and Nietzsche can in fact be reconciled with one another. I’ll have more to say on this point in subsequent posts… [For part two on Whitehead and Nietzsche’s process pluralisms click here].

Further reading: “Two Perspectives on Metaphysical Perspectivism: Nietzsche and Whitehead” by Donald Crosby. 

Responding to Levi Bryant on the Question of Religion

I’ve copied my response to Levi below:

I’m glad you are not reducing all religion to the sort of literalism we’re both trying to critique (you from a scientific standpoint aimed at religion, me from a spiritual standpoint aimed at scientism). Regardless of what the majority of “believers” may think about the ontological status of their religious propositions (neither of us can offer anything but anecdotal evidence on this point), what I’ve been attempting to do in our discussion is shift us away from the sort of representationalist paradigm that would construe religion in terms of “true v. false” belief. Deleuze does thematize the modern turn away from certainty toward belief, but his discussion of belief is set in a pragmatic context where what is most important is not whether the object of the belief is fabricated or factual, but whether the effect of the belief is life affirming or nihilistic. A belief in the divinity of Jesus may be totally fabricated, but from my perspective, this is irrelevant. The important question to ask is how the “fictional force” of such a belief works to transform individual and social behavior and experience. The important question to ask is not “is religion true?” but “what does religiosity make possible?” I know this is part of the way you want to analyze the question of religion, as well. You tend to emphasize the negative effects. I recognize that certain expressions of religiosity are socially, politically, and ecologically damaging. But I also recognize other expressions of religiosity that have positive social, political, and ecological effects (e.g., Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who just yesterday spoke at our commencement here at CIIS). It is not at all obvious that the negative outweighs the positive; and even if it did, I question whether it is really possible to purify ourselves of religiosity, be it of the ancient, animistic sort or the modern, scientistic sort. Myth and symbol are inextricable features of human cognition, whether we are scientifically trained or not. I know of no scientific theory that is utterly free of narrative structure. Even mathematical formalisms share the metaphorical structure of poetry in their use of an “=” sign. I am not trying to equate scientific with mythic modes of experience; I think the scientific method is a sort of technological and empirical refinement of our innate story-telling capacities. I also think that we need a new form of spirituality today, one not limited by ancient or modern forms of literalism. My essay on Whitehead and Deleuze tries to spell out how we might proceed on this front.

What confuses me about your approach is that, as Jason and others have pointed out, you seem to ignore the important ground that was laid (or perhaps the ground that was demolished) by Nietzsche’s philosophical hammer. I’m sure you’re familiar with his short piece on the “true world” becoming a fable. If this “true world” is no longer tenable, what are we left with? Not the apparent world, surely, since the meaning of “mere appearance” is scrambled unless there is an original truth that appearance is a better or worse attempt to copy. So what are we left with? We are left with two choices: negation or affirmation. The latter choice requires admitting that we are world-creators as much as world-discoverers, that all our techno-scientific knowledge is but another genre of poetic expression (an extremely powerful genre!). Affirmation means accepting the participatory nature of all our supposed reflective knowledge, that it cannot grant us access to a ready-made Reality waiting to be “truly” or “falsely” represented, not only because knowing is always already performative/enactive, but because no such unified, ready-made Reality exists. Different modalities of knowing call forth the realities they desire to know. So let us not continue to pretend that the expression “True world” has any one precise meaning. The true world died along with God. What is left for us is artistic expression, song and dance, ritual and celebration. If Philosophy is to remain relevant today, it cannot do so as a form of ascetics, but must unground its traditional representational basis so as to become a kind of conceptual artistics (i.e., a creation of concepts, as Deleuze would call it).

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).

Philosophy of the Human in Whitehead and Schelling (response to Knowledge-Ecology)

Adam/Knowledge-Ecology just posted a fine reflection on the place of the human in nature. Below is my response.

I think there is an elephant in the room here. Just before the line you quote in Modes of Thought, Whitehead says “In mankind, the dominant dependence on bodily functioning seems still there. And yet the life of a human being receives its worth, its importance, from the way in which unrealized ideals shape its purposes and tinge its actions” (27). He is giving us a hint about the essence of the human: the human is that being capable of actualizing its own ideals. In other words, we not only feel the creative freedom of the universe as an element in our individual concrescence (like all other occasions), we grasp this freedom as a fact constitutive of our very selves. It is a difference in degree that may as well be a difference in kind. Other occasions are “free” to the extent that they are distinct realizations of the creative advance into novelty; but only the human knows that it is free, only the human can withdraw from time and glimpse into the eternal mind of God to envisage as yet unrealized values. Other beings receive their values without conscious decision. Humans can make their own values. What is really characteristic of our special sort of freedom is our capacity for good and evil. Does it make sense to conceive of evil in the non-human universe? It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me. Granted, some, like Nietzsche, would say these categories, good and evil, make no sense in the human universe, either. Nietzsche is brilliant, but I don’t think civilization, be it modern or non-modern, can survive without fully accepting the responsibility of the knowledge of good and evil. We are free and we know it.

Whitehead goes on in the next paragraph of MoT to offer a very ancient typology of four “aggregations of actuality,” or what might be called forms of society: (1) inorganic actualities, dominated by the statistical average, (2) vegetation, dominated by growth and survival, (3) animal actualities, possessed of full blown emotionality, and in some higher order cases, ethicality, (4) human actualities, where for the first time full blown morality and religion appear. Whitehead admits that something like morality is already present in other mammals, but “religion” is uniquely human. What is religion? We might take a look at another text of his, Religion in the Making (I’ve done a little research on this HERE), but in MoT he suggests it has something to do with “[emphasizing] the unity of ideal inherent in the universe” (28). Religion, in other words, is humanity’s attempt to freely and consciously participate in the divine love (Eros) luring all things toward greater and greater expressions of Beauty.

I’ve just finished reading Schelling’s last published work (1809, two years after Hegel’sPhenomenology, and something of a response), considered by most Schellingians to be his masterpiece, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom. Its a short work, well worth the read. He does something very interesting in this text, situating human beings at the apex of nature for sure, but not in the way we Moderns are used to. Nature, and not the human, is the original transcendental subject. Humanity is the most archetypal product of nature’s subjectivity. It is a very complex picture that he tries to paint, involving a God who suffers, a philosophical soul who rises to God’s suffering, and the destiny of the universe driven by Love (you’ve heard similar stories in Teilhard, and indeed in Whitehead)… I can only leave you a small sample here. Schelling writes, “this dark principle [the capacity for evil] is active in animals as well as in all other natural beings, yet it is still not born into the light in them as it is in man: it is not spirit and understanding but blind craving and desire; in short, no fall, no separation of principles is possible here where there is still no absolute or personal unity. The conscious and not conscious are unified in animal instinct only in a certain and determinate way which for that very reason is unalterable. For just on that account, because they are only relative expressions of unity, they are subject to it, and the force active in the ground retains the unity of principles befitting them always in the same proportion. Animals are never able to emerge from unity, whereas man can voluntarily tear apart the eternal bond of forces.” Schelling then quotes his theosophical calibrator Fr. Baader: “…it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals” (40/373).

Additional comment:

When Schelling talks about the severing of the principles, he is talking about the dark and light principles of Being itself. These are ontological categories that structure everything in existence. Darkness is the contractive force, that which withdraws; light is the expansive force, that which reveals. In the human, these ontological forces seem to become capable of disequilibrium as a result of our freedom. We can attempt to elevate the dark over the light, which can never ultimately succeed, but in the attempt, we become fallen. Being itself seems to rupture and fall to pieces. The human-caused ecological crisis is still perfectly “natural,” but indeed it seems that one natural being has fallen and is taking vast swaths of earth with it into the depths of non-existence.

The Veil of Isis and the Meaning of Withdrawal

“A good maxim,” writes Nietzsche,

is too hard for the teeth of time, and all the millennia cannot succeed in consuming it, though it always serves as nourishment…(Human, All Too Human).

Pierre Hadot, in his essay on the history of the idea of nature, The Veil of Isis (2006), leads his reader through 2,500 years of Western philosophical discourse, all of which could be read as a creative (mis)reading of Heraclitus’ maxim: “Phusis kruptesthai philei.” What Heraclitus actually meant by this statement (which, literally translated, says “Nature loves to hide”) is difficult to uncover. Hadot speculates that the most faithful reading of the aphorism is something like: “that which causes birth tends to cause death,” or similarly, “that which causes things to appear tends to make them disappear.” Such statements are typical of the paradoxical style of Heraclitus, for whom nature is an ever-living fire. This cosmic fire is constituted by a strife of opposites, which find dynamic wholeness in the continual flow of all things.

For ancients and moderns alike, nature was thought to contain secrets, or hidden reasons, that, if uncovered through magical, mathematical, or mechanical means, could empower and ennoble humanity. During the Scientific Revolution, attempts were made to “save the appearance” of natural phenomena by devising hypothetical accounts of the underlying causes responsible for producing their visible effects. Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis was not initially interpreted by the Church as a threat, since it was understood to be a sort of useful fiction that in no way restricted the omnipotent intellect of God, whose actual cosmic design was beyond human comprehension. Even Descartes was careful to limit his mechanistic explanations of phenomena by saying that these explanations simply aimed to reproduce the visible effects of nature without necessarily achieving these effects in the same way as the Creator. The Greek word for mechanics, mēkhanē, signifies “trick” or “ruse”; initially, then, applying the practical art of mechanical engineering (and the ancients were not as ill equipped in this art as is often thought) to the phenomena of nature was considered to be a kind of “trick” that enabled humans a limited degree of prediction and control over her processes. Only later, as, following the great successes of Newtonian mechanics, God came to be imagined as a retired engineer, was the ancient notion of “saving the appearances” replaced by the more modern notion of explaining appearances through mechanical causes. Eventually, theological speculation no longer seemed relevant to scientists. Laplace could dismiss God as an unnecessary hypothesis. Rather than a useful analogy between artificial and natural processes, nature was explicitly identified with mechanism.

This identification was not complete, however. Machines are intelligently designed, even if by the finite intelligence of human beings. They therefore operate as a result of more than just material and efficient causes, but also due to formal and final causes. Even if an omnipotent divine will is no longer a compelling explanation for the existence and organized growth of nature, there is undoubtedly still something about the causality of natural beings that remains mysteriously withdrawn.

How are we to conceive of this withdrawal in our contemporary context? Religious and secular explanations both being unconvincing, where is philosophy to turn for an adequate account of the nature of nature?

At the end of the preface to The Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty writes:

The world and reason do not present a problem; let us say, if you will, that they are mysterious, but this mystery defines them, and there can be no question of dissipating it by some solution. It is beyond solutions.

“True philosophy,” he continues, “is relearning to see the world.” Merleau-Ponty seems to be suggesting that what is needed is a form of seeing as comfortable with obscurity as it is with clarity. Nature is not a big secret that one day, through technical trickery or prosaic definition, might be finally unveiled. The being of nature is dark and withdrawn, even while its essence shines forth in an infinitely diverse array of colors and forms.

Nature is an indefinite series of enveloping veils, that, if removed in step, would lead back to the ground of being, which, for Schelling, is the cosmic anguish of a divinity that cannot escape its own ipseity. All the order and beauty of the manifest cosmos emerges from the “sacred shudder” of this unconscious God in response to its own uncanny existence. Nature seeks, through the development of its envelopment,

to show the Eternal as if in a mirror the most concealed thoughts of what lies innermost within its own self, thoughts that it itself does not know (Ages of the World, 2nd draft).

Nature, then, is the withdrawal of God from itself, the Othering of Self such that selfhood can come to exist in relation to itself, to know itself, even if this knowing remains forever mysterious. For the logician, this is entirely irrational, since the Eternal cannot be other than itself without being contradictory. For the poet, this paradox is the light of Truth herself at play in time.