On Whitehead’s Sociological Theory in “Adventures of Ideas”

Whitehead’s goal is these pages to elucidate the concept of civilization. He operates under the assumption that human civilization has profound cosmological significance. The fact that civilized beings have emerged in the course of the evolution of the universe tells us something important about the nature and perhaps even the purpose of that universe. His hypothesis is that the rise of human civilization exemplifies the effective lure of ideas in the adventure of cosmogenesis. While the issue of novel ideas into practical consequences may be slow, the upward adventure of life on Earth testifies to their power. 

He begins by reminding his readers that history is not just a collection of facts. Were we to be presented with the bare facts, devoid of any theoretical interpretation, we would have merely sound vibrations and the motion of colored shapes (3). History is a story told in the present, often to serve as material for the formation of our own self-understanding. Our imaginations of history are inseparable from our metaphysical and cosmological presuppositions. 

Whitehead claims that the study of history reveals a general dichotomy, that between senseless, often violent, compulsion and consciously formulated aspiration. People “are driven by their thoughts as well as by the molecules in their bodies, by intelligence and by senseless forces” (46). Whitehead lists environmental conditions and the brute necessities of technological production (e.g., the socially transformative effects of coal, steam, electricity, and oil) among the senseless forces, and Axial religion and democratic humanitarianism as examples of intelligent aspiration (7).  

While Whitehead was himself a progressive (he was involved in the women’s rights and educational reform movements of his day), he cautions against the impetuous insistence upon imposing new ideas in the wrong season. Sometimes in the rush to implement social improvements, attendant complexities are ignored, and the attempt to remove an evil ends up releasing further evils (20). “A great idea is not to be conceived as merely waiting for enough good [people] to carry it into practical effect…The ideal in the background is promoting the gradual growth of the requisite communal customs, adequate to sustain the load of its exemplification” (21). Ideals may be well-intentioned, but given the complexities of both nature and culture (and the complex interplay and continual overlap between them), the actual effects of their implementation often far outrun their conscious intent.

Whitehead dwells on the institutions of human sacrifice and slavery, long accepted among supposedly civilized peoples, as examples of the power of inherited instinctive behaviors to override higher ideals. “Freedom” was almost a meaningless notion for earlier societies, such as the Egyptian or Babylonian (49). Whitehead tasks philosophy with seeking to consciously entertain and articulate those ultimate intuitions, obscured by habitual customs, that nonetheless guide human beings toward civilized order, that is, toward a world wherein the persuasion of free beings has emerged victorious over coercive force as the prime agent of history (25). Whitehead offers an updated rendering of Plato’s suggestion in the Republic—that the ideal state would be run by philosopher-kings: “today, in an age of democracy, the kings are plain citizens pursuing their various avocations. There can be no successful democratic society till general education conveys a philosophic outlook” (98). 

Such a philosophical outlook would marshal wisdom as a “modifying agency” upon the two streams that feed into our consciousness, that is, inherited instincts/routines and intellectual ferment/spontaneity (47). Wisdom functions to coalesce these streams into some self-determining (i.e., free) and holistic judgment. Wise decision-making is limited by the limitations of our consciousness: “We do not initiate thought by an effort of self-consciousness. We find ourselves thinking, just as we find ourselves breathing and enjoying the sunset.” Nonetheless, few are willing to deny the role of knowledge and freedom in human life, though admittedly they tend to come in brief and unexpected flashes. Civilization advances, if it does, because wisdom kindles these flashes so as to melt and make malleable inherited customs and to light the way toward juster futures. 

Whitehead sees little evidence that humanity’s inborn mental capacities have increased during the historical period. Rather, he points to “the outfit which the environment provides for the service of thought,” that is, to the impact of various media technologies (e.g., literary and mathematical symbolisms, communication methods, etc.). The downside is that technologically mediated intelligence is liable to get locked into its favored abstractions, “[dismissing] the baffling aspects of things” in favor of the certainty provided by logical system. “Wisdom,” Whitehead suggests, “is persistent pursuit of the deeper understanding, ever confronting intellectual system with the importance of its omissions…The folly of intelligent people, clear-headed and narrow-visioned, has precipitated many catastrophes” (47-48).

Writing in the early 20th century, Whitehead thought that the economic sphere constituted the “most massive problem of human relationships” (62). He maintains high hopes for commerce, since ideally “it is the great example of intercourse in the way of persuasion,” while “war, slavery, and governmental compulsion exemplify the reign of force” (83). But difficulties stand in the way of realizing the ideal. Whitehead discusses the invention of corporate personhood, which he believes totally undermined classical liberal political philosophy, wherein freedom belonged to individual human beings, rather than to fictional corporate entities. He also discusses the hazy notion of private property, which with the expansion of monopolistic corporate rule and competitive market dynamics has come to signify little more than “the will of the stronger” (63). But Whitehead admits that the classical liberal idea of “absolute individuals with absolute rights” is both metaphysically and politically inadequate: “The human being is inseparable from its environment in each occasion of its existence.” Whitehead’s process-relational understanding of reality has it that individuals, while they constitute real loci of aesthetic and moral value, are nonetheless emergent from their social relations; similarly, societies are shaped by the mutual transactions of their members. The emergence of individuals from their social relations means that custom forms the instinctive basis of our behavior. But determination by custom is not total, as individuals are also free to emphasize novel intuitions of alternative courses of action, and to consciously agree to mutually beneficial contractual transactions with one another, thus allowing for the possibility of a genuinely free marketplace. In the end, “nothing is effective except massively coordinated inheritance. Sporadic spontaneity is composed of flashes mutually thwarting each other. Ideas have to be sustained, disentangled, diffused, and coordinated with the background. Finally they pass into exemplification in action” (64). Thus, much work remains to be done to translate the ideal of freedom into the economic domain.

Whitehead traces the rise of the ideal of freedom in the history of human societies. Once a negligible fancy, it has gradually become the founding value of democratic nation-states. But Whitehead warns us against conceiving of freedom in purely cultural terms, as freedom of thought and speech, of the press, or of religious practice; that is, it is shortsighted to conceive of restraints on our freedom as stemming merely from the conflicting desires of other human beings. It is not our fellow human beings, but the “massive habits of physical nature” that constrain our freedom and set the scene for our suffering: “birth and death, heat, cold, hunger, separation, disease…all bring their quota to imprison the souls of women and of men” (66). Political philosopher William Connolly’s book The Fragility of Things (2013) begins by recounting the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake in 1755, which provides as striking an example as we could ask for of what Whitehead means. Connolly describes how the senseless shock of this terrible natural disaster fed into the emergent Enlightenment mentality represented by Voltaire, who in his satirical book Candide ridiculed both traditional religious consolations as well as Leibniz’s conception that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. In Connolly’s terms, the event exemplifies the way “the human estate is both imbricated with and periodically over-matched by a cosmos composed of multiple, interacting force fields moving at different speeds” (7). But rather than adopting an atheistic position in light of nature’s vicissitudes and the fragility of human life, Whitehead affirms the role of Ideas in history, believing that we can directly intuit an eternal Good beyond all changing circumstances. Without such ideal intuitions to stir the soul toward higher life, he sees no reason why civilized beings should have come to exist in the first place.

Whitehead then turns to critique the socioeconomic consequences of the Malthusian doctrine and the attendant Darwinian notion of “the survival of the fittest,” which he believes are at best an over-simplification and, at worst, when compared with the recent facts of European history, demonstrably false. The doctrine naturalizes the inequalities of capitalist society, with “the fortunate few, and…the semi-destitute many,” forcing us to abandon “hope of improving the social system by a humane adjustment of social…conditions” (73). Connolly goes into more detail regarding the continued effect of these doctrines in his discussion of neoliberalism, which is an ideology seeking to use state power to inject market dynamics into all domains of human life (21). The assumption is that the self-organizing dynamics of the market will result in the best of all possible worlds. Neoliberalism is thus a kind of capitalist Panglossianism (6) (Pangloss, remember, is Voltaire’s caricature of Leibniz).

Though Whitehead emphasizes the selective agency required for the evolution of civilization out of raw nature, he rejects the prevalent dichotomy between humanity and nature. “Mankind is that factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of Nature” (78). He goes on to claim that life itself is about more than mere survival, as living beings are constantly playing offense, groping toward novelty and expansion of their powers. In the human sphere, it follows that “a policy of sociological defense is doomed to failure” (81). “In a live civilization, there is always an element of unrest. For sensitiveness to ideas means curiosity, adventure, change” (83).

Responding to the Alt-Right

After replying to an alt-right tweet this morning, I somehow fell through an interdimensional hyperlink and found myself reading Atlantic Centurion’s blog. Here’s his post explaining the 7 pillars of the alt-right. He elaborates on each of the seven here.

I felt like offering a few reactions to each of them, which I’ll write in blue below (I’ll paste AC’s pillars in red).

  1. Understanding human difference, e.g. race, sex, ethnicity, intelligence, abilities, genetics, moral foundations, etc. As someone who often finds himself defending both ontological and political pluralism, I can’t help but agree here that human difference, like all difference, is real and must be acknowledged as such. This acknowledgement has social, cultural, and political consequences.  The point is that we must attend to one another’s differences in a just and responsible way. But our difference doesn’t mean we aren’t all still human, and even more foundationally, that we aren’t all still earthlings. The evolutionary history of this planet is a geostory of relationship and symbiogenesis, not a war of each against all. Difference is inescapable, but individual and clade differences always arise in concert with one another as part of a single earthbound (earthbound but not impermeable to astronomical intrusion) evolutionary process. In other words, organisms always evolve ecologically. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.” Or, as Whitehead puts it, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.”  So while I agree even a free and just society cannot promise equal outcomes to everyone, I must add that, to qualify as a freedom and justice loving society, it must at least strive to provide equal opportunity to all. Otherwise it is a tyranny or a state of war, not a society.
  2. Recognizing the reality of tribe, that there is no universal man but a world of rooted identities.
    That humans have tribal tendencies cannot be denied. But I for one am not willing to artificially delimit the possible breadth and depth of a human being’s cosmic and moral identity. We are not simply selfishly driven skin-encapsulated egos. Yes, we are born to parents in particular locations and enculturated in unique ways. We are rooted, but behind our merely human identities, we are also rooted in the Earth, an expression of its multibillion year symbiogenetic geostorical adventure. Unless humans begin to take our earthbound nature seriously very soon, we will drive ourselves into extinction. The task of forming a planetary identity so that we can act to address our collective ecological problems has never been more urgent. This needn’t mean annihilating our personal, familial, and more local identities. It’s a both/and thing.Human history itself at least appears to display something like an evolutionary trajectory, even if it is not a simple progression. Spiral Dynamics captures this well enough (though things get knotted up once you reach the “integral” stage, imo).  sprialdynamics-aqal-large7
    Tribalism is a simpler, primal form of human organization, a form long since advanced upon. When the civil order decays, there is always a chance humans will slide back into tribalism. But thankfully, tribalism is not the only social reality humans are capable of constructing. 
  3. Rejecting anti-Whiteness, the belief that Whites are exceptionally wrong and should not be allowed to have collective interests as a people.
    If we are to compose a society together based on the values of freedom and justice (and this willingness to compose a common world together cannot be assumed in advance, though the only alternative I know of on this crowded planet is war), then we must do so on the basis of a shared identity deeper than the shade of our skin. This doesn’t mean we pretend our differences don’t exist, or that we ignore racism by pretending we are colorblind; it means that for the purposes of democratic politics, we play our proper part as citizens of the cosmos, not as parochial bigots. White identity politics leads nowhere. Human evolution is convergent. 
  4. Gender roles matter, men and women are similar in many ways but complementary rather than “equal.”
    Sure they matter. But who says gender—and sex, for that matter—haven’t always been transforming over the course of natural and cultural evolution? Nature is composed of relational processes, not static essences. Nature is way queerer than the alt-right imagines. Gender, in our and most species, is a fluid spectrum. Sexual desire can never be fully domesticated by cultural norms. Get over it. 
  5. Responsibility over freedom, unchecked freedom and individualism lead to social harms.
    This is why the role of childcare and education is so important in democratic societies. The values of freedom and justice have to be cultivated collectively via rituals of mutual recognition. We are not simply born free individuals. Individuality is in large part a gift from the communities that raise us. Only if we are cared for in this way by our society will we grow up to express and realize our freedom responsibly, passing these values on to the next generation through social reproduction.
  6. Limited franchise, not everyone is qualified to decide the fate of nations by pulling a lever, sorry.
    Oh, I see AC is not interested in a democratic society. Perhaps this is a waste of time…
  7. The Jewish Question, recognizing that elite overseas Israelis promote policies which are in the net harmful to their White hosts.
    Yep, hopeless. 

The Democratization of Initiation at Burning Man

As religious scholar Lee Gilmore argues in her book Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man, the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, NV provides that growing sector of the population who identify as “spiritual but not religious” with an opportunity to cultivate the communal ethos and participate in the ritualistic catharsis normally associated with traditional forms of religion. Some theologians have criticized so-called SBNRs for being “self-centered” and warn that the growth of such an identity has more to do with the degeneration of culture by consumerism than with any genuine flowering of spirituality. The continual growth of Burning Man (the festival sold out for the first time in 2011), defined by its rejection of advertising and commodification, suggests that there is more to the story.

Gilmore argues that this annual pilgrimage to the desert, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is forcing academics to

“reconsider the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ as defined less by matters of institution, doctrine, and belief and more by questions of ritual, practice, and experience” (Burning Man Blog).

After returning from my second journey to Black Rock City earlier this week, I can say with some degree of certainty that Burning Man represents the emergence of new, prototypically American religious movement. Its ethos strives to find the sacred balance between individual expression and collective participation. Its peculiar form of religiosity weds art and science into a carnivalesque celebration of bodily beauty and soulful intelligence. Its gift economy encourages the kind of authentic encounter between strangers no longer permitted in the hustle and bustle of the “default world.” Its “leave no trace” policy fosters the kind of ecological awareness that is necessary if our species is to survive the environmental crises of the coming century.

2011 marked the first year in the festival’s history that the temporary wooden temple structure reached higher into the sky than the ritually burned effigy known as “The Man.” To my mind, this is a symbolic change, representing Burning Man’s transition into a new phase of existence. No longer simply about burning the Man to revel in the destruction of the shackles of the patriarchal status quo, its participants are beginning to explicitly recognize the vibrant spiritual culture they have constructed to replace it. 2011 also marks the birth of The Burning Man Project, a non-profit organization committed to renewing urban centers with the power of radical participation and artistic expression. More than 20 years after the young festival was kicked off Baker Beach for being perceived as a public nuisance, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee recently welcomed the BMP back to the city of the movement’s birth.

Despite its encouraging expansion back into the default world, the lifeblood of the Burning Man experiment remains the weeklong ritual in the desert of northern Nevada. It is there that a new way of being human is being born, that the traditional boundaries between the sacred and the profane are being redrawn or perhaps erased all together. Viewed as a collective phenomenon, it seems to me that the individuals involved in the movement are only just beginning to understand the full meaning of the world they are bringing forth together. It is as if the massive gathering of hippies, freaks, engineers, healers, artists, witches, jedis, and weirdos is being unconsciously lured to the desert by higher powers to provide a landing pad or interdimensional portal for a new kind of intelligence to incarnate upon the earth. Just as the Judeo-Christian religions of our collective past were generated by the profound transformations of desert-dwelling prophets, the planetary spirituality of our collective future is being generated by a now more democratic form of initiation.