The 21st Century Whitehead Will Be Deleuzian

I often find myself thinking with Alfred North Whitehead. I recall that today is his birthday, Feburary 15 (1861-1947). I don’t remember many birthdays of philosophers, but that is one of them. It’s Galileo’s birthday too, so maybe that has something to do with this date sticking in my memory.

I recently finalized revisions for “A Place for Ecological Democracy in Whitehead’s Philosophy of Religious Entanglements,” which is a chapter for an anthology, Greening Philosophy of Religion: Rethinking Climate Change at the Intersection of Philosophy and Religion (edited by Jea Sophia Oh and John Quiring). In a couple of months I’ll be presenting on Whitehead’s ontological principle for the American Philosophical Association. I keep thinking with Whitehead, but I wouldn’t consider myself Whiteheadian. I continue drawing on his philosophy for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I am often inspired by other contemporary writers who engage with Whitehead in new ways that are relevant to contemporary problems. It is the community of those who think with Whitehead who really make Whitehead interesting to me. In other words, the secondary sources are often more interesting than Whitehead’s primary texts. So maybe I’m a secondary Whiteheadian, if that’s a thing. Not just any secondary Whiteheadian. A Deleuzian Whiteheadian. 

My proclivity for secondary sources on Whitehead makes sense according to Whitehead’s own understanding of philosophy: “The use of philosophy is to maintain an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system.” It is secondary sources that maintain active novelty, keeping Whitehead readable and relevant. New materialism, posthumanism, and speculative realism are among some of the recent movements to plug Whitehead into new conversations and contexts. I think it’s been feminist engagements with Whitehead that have influenced me the most, specifically those of Donna Haraway and Catherine Keller. A notable feature of all of those uses of Whitehead (new materialist, posthumanist, speculative realist, and feminist) is that Whitehead is juxtaposed with Deleuze. It looks like the Whitehead of the 21st century is Deleuzian. We’re thinking with a Deleuzian Whitehead.

deleuzeandwhiteheadThere are two tendencies that show up in the way people juxtapose Whitehead and Deleuze. On one hand, people situate them in combinatorial contrast, bringing together their concepts in ways that are different but not opposed. Example: Deleuze and Whitehead both develop metaphysics of becoming, challenging modern prohibitions against metaphysics and overturning the foundationalism that pervades the philosophical tradition. On the other, people treat them as representatives of polar opposites, whether complementary or antagonistic. Example: Whiteheadian becoming is more subjective and teleological, and Deleuzian becoming is a more material and chaotic, as is proposed in Steven Smith’s forthcoming book, Centering and Extending: An Essay on Metaphysical Sense, where Smith positions himself in the middle of a spectrum in which Deleuze (matter, chaos) and Whitehead (subjectivity and teleology) represent the poles. It’s also not uncommon to hear Whitehead described as a pluralist and Deleuze (like Bergson) a monist. Graham Harman and Roland Faber both make that point.

Both approaches (contrast and opposition) seem like useful ways of juxtaposing Whitehead and Deleuze, and most juxtapositions involve a little of both. However, it is really the method of contrast that is most suited to the task of engaging Deleuzian and Whiteheadian ideas. They are thinkers of contrast, not opposition. A good indication that oppositions do not situate Deleuze and Whitehead very well is that any proposed opposition can typically be reversed. Contra Harman and Faber, you could argue that Whitehead is the more monistic thinker: Deleuze affirms multiplicities of multiplicities while Whitehead absorbs all into a panentheistic monism. Contra Smith, you could also argue that Deleuze was far more focused on subjectivity than Whitehead, as evidenced by Deleuze’s engagement with Freud and his collaboration with Guattari. What about the teleology/chaos opposition? That too could be reversed, so that Deleuze is the teleological one, attempting to liberate all singularities, getting them “out of this world” (as Peter Hallward thoroughly analyzes), whereas Whitehead relieves beings of the burden of a determinate telos, replacing a goal or purpose with open-ended aims contingent upon dynamic relationships.

In short, there is a hermeneutic depth to Whitehead and Deleuze that is not amenable to neat oppositions, which is part of what makes them so relevant to the complex and uncertain contexts of coexistence in the 21st century. I appreciate that simple oppositions can have a propadeutic or heuristic value. I am not entirely opposed to opposition. No possibilities are closed off. Thinking with Deleuze-Whitehead is thinking in the open. Not like we’re trying to think outside the box: that worn-out cliché, which was in trouble well before anybody started to think outside the bun. Thinking with Deleuze-Whitehead, thinking in the open, we’re not escaping the box. Really, isn’t the idea of escape itself part of the box? We’re designing the box differently. Perhaps for the first time, we’re learning how to think inside the box.

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4 responses to “The 21st Century Whitehead Will Be Deleuzian

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