Theological Implications of Object-Oriented Philosophy

An increasing number of new books are engaging speculative realism and object-oriented ontology in terms of their implications for theology and philosophy of religion. A good anthology of approaches is The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion, edited by Clayton Crockett, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. One of the chapters in that book (“The Persistence of the Trace,” by Steven Shakespeare) cites a short piece I wrote in March 2011, “Theological Implications of Object-Oriented Philosophy: Factishes, Imperatives, and Cthulhu.” It was originally posted on the esteemed blog, Knowledge Ecology.

It was a guest post, and it’s expiration date has passed, so it’s not up anymore. I’m posting it here. [NB: this was only an abstract.  For a more thorough account of theological (and ecological) implications of object-oriented ontology in relationship to process, poststructuralist, and ecofeminist theologies, read On the Verge of a Planetary Civilization]. Continue reading


On the Verge of a Planetary Civilization: A Philosophy of Integral Ecology

This book is the first in a series of works in which I explore the dynamics of planetary coexistence.  You can get it from from the publisher (Rowman & Littlefield International) HERE.


Below you’ll find the summary and a few blurbs: Continue reading

An Ethical Universe

Bruno Latour articulates a wonderful idea in An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence, where he argues that morality is in the world, not just in humans.  For anything to exist it must persist in its being: everything emits “must,” like a musty smell.  To be is to emit value, to evaluate.  It is value all the way down.  Here’s what Latour has to say:

We have to go down long lines of Bifurcators before reaching Kant, who expects humans deprived of world to “add” values to beings “deprived of ought-to-be.”  Before him, and in the rest of the world, there hadn’t been a single existent that had failed to exclaim: “It must,” “It mustn’t,” measuring the difference between being and nonbeing by this hesitation.  Everything in the world evaluates, from von Uexküll’s tick to Pope Benedict XVI—and even Magritte’s pipe.  Instead of opposing “is” to “ought to be,” count instead how many beings an existent needs to pass through and how many alterations it must learn to adapt to in order to continue to exist.  On this point Nietzsche is right, the word “value” has no antonym—and especially not the word “fact.”
Just as a geologist can hear the clicks of radioactivity, but only if he is equipped with a Geiger counter, we can register the presence of morality in the world provided that we concentrate on that particular emission.  And just as no one, once the instrument has been calibrated, would think of asking the geologist if radioactivity is “all in his head,” “in his heart,” or “in the rocks,” no one will doubt any longer that the world emits morality toward anyone who possesses an instrument sensitive enough to register it. (pp. 453, 456)

This means that the task of ethics is aesthetic—becoming sensitive to the ethical emissions of things, cultivating something like Humean sympathies for the values of different modes of existence.  However, Latour expands on Hume by making ethics cosmological in scope.  Everything has value, everything matters.  This is similar to something Karen Barad says in Meeting the Universe Halfway.  “A delicate tissue of ethicality runs through the marrow of being.  There is no getting away from ethics—mattering is an integral part of the ontology of the world in its dynamic presencing.  Not even a moment exists on its own. […]  We need to meet the universe halfway, to take responsibility for the role that we play in the world’s differential becoming” (p. 396).

Latour, Rejoicing: A Critical Review

The recent work by Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME, for short), deals with the various felicity conditions of different modes of existence, including religious modes of existence.  Along these lines, AIME extends his previous works on religion, including his writings on factishes, iconoclash, and the freeze-frames that convolute science-religion dialogue.  It is appropriate, then, that the release of the English edition of AIME was accompanied by the release of the English edition of his 2002 work on the felicity conditions of religious speech, Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech (Polity, 2013).  With these works as well as his recent Gifford Lectures, Latour is making important contributions to theology and religious studies, opening up nice points of contact with science studies, ecology, speculative realism, and object-oriented ontology.

There are a lot of good points coming from Latour’s Rejoicing, which he articulates elsewhere as well.  Religions and sciences are not amenable to worn-out oppositions such as transcendence and immanence, subjective and objective, spirit and matter, fetishes and facts, iconography and iconoclasm, traditional and modern.  Instead of separating religions and sciences into two different realms of being or knowing, Latour recognizes that there is only one world, “no other world, just this one here” (174), and there is no truth we can discern about this world without constructing that truth.  Neither religion nor science has a monopoly on truth about existence, and neither one lays claim to knowledge of another world (since there is no other world).  Religions and sciences involve two different kinds of speech acts which thus have two different sets of felicity conditions, and when those felicity conditions are met, different things happen.  Scientific speech acts bring us knowledge of distant things (atoms, the Big Bang, the climate, etc.), whereas religious speech acts bring us closer to one another (family, friends, loved ones).  Sciences enact references and information about the distant and far away, whereas religions enact translations and transformations of what is close by, the everyday.  Nonetheless, I have a few problems with Rejoicing (which are, more or less, also problems with his other writings on religion).

Continue reading

One Earth: Sloterdijk and Monogeism

Affirming the transition of humanity toward a global or planetary civilization, Peter Sloterdijk proposes what he calls “monogeism,” a term which Bruno Latour adopts in his recent works.  From monotheism to monogeism…from God to Globe….

Here’s a couple of excerpts on monogeism from Sloterdijk’s In the World Interior of Capital (Polity, 2013).

[…] the historical object, the terrestrial globe, is a thing full of metaphysical quirks that like to hide beneath the veneer of the ordinary.   It constitutes a geographical philosophical bastard whose logical and physical peculiarities are not so simple to comprehend.  On the one hand, the printed blue orb with the savannah-coloured patches initially seems no more than one thing among many things, a small body among many bodies, that statesmen and schoolchildren set in rotation with a single hand movement; at the same time, it is supposed to represent the singular totality or the geological monad that serves as the foundation for all life, though and invention.  It is this terrestrial question of location that becomes ever more binding the in the course of modernization: while the ancient conception of the cosmos paradoxically made the earth the marginal centre of a universe that humans could only observe from within, the moderns perceived it as an eccentric orb whose roundness we could verify ourselves through external viewing.  This would have unforeseeable consequences for the generations after Mercator.  For us, monogeism—the conviction that this planet is unique—transpires as a fact that is rejuvenated daily, while monotheism can never again be more than an age-worn religious thesis that cannot really be brought up to date, not even with the aid of pious bombs from the Near East.  The proofs of God’s existence must bear the blemish of their failure, while those of the globe’s existence have an unstoppable influx of evidence on their side. (5-6)

[F]or half of millennium, the notion of the round earth settled in the consciousnesses of Western people and their media like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It drew a very small, active minority of these into an unprecedented departure—a pragmatic mixture of a conquering expedition, apostolic history and research process.  But the idea of the earth’s spherical shape did not remain merely a symbolic figure; monogeism was more than a postulation of beautiful physics.  The carriers of this true, as yet unproved idea—tough seafarers, patient cartographers, metal-addicted monarchs and noble-minded spice merchants—piled proof upon proof until the last deniers, ignoramuses and indifferents had to yield before the advancing evidence.  […]  Possible doubters of monogeism must tolerate being labeled revisionists.  The faith of the seafarers changed into knowledge, and that knowledge became trivial and specialized; the earth-believers of the sixteenth century are now postmodern geoscientists—eleven thousand of them gathered in Nice in April 2003 for a Euro-American working conference.  On the flight, most of them would only have cast a brief glance from the air at the strange object of their theoretical desire. (161)

Earth Stories

I’ve been thinking about Bruno Latour’s term, “geostory” (from his Gifford Lectures), which refers not just to stories that humans tell about Earth but refers to the implosion of the categories of the semiotic and the material, the sign and the thing in itself, history and geology.  If geostory is a story of Earth, “of” should be read as a double genitive, both objective (story about Earth) and subjective (story belonging to Earth, i.e., the narrative unfolding of Earth itself).  In any case, what really strikes me here is how many people have already proposed concepts that resonate with Latour’s proposal for geostory.

Consider an example from Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (New York: Dutton, 1979).  “Now I want to show you that whatever the word ‘story’ means […], thinking in terms of stories does not isolate human beings as something separate from the starfish and the sea anemones, the coconut palms and the primroses.  Rather, if the world be connected, if I am at all fundamentally right in what I am saying, then thinking in terms of stories must be shared by all minds, whether ours or those of redwood forests and sea anemones […], the evolutionary process through millions of generations whereby the sea anemone, like you and me, came to be—that process, too, must be of the stuff of stories.” (p. 12).

I’m also reminded of one of the working notes from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1968).  “In fact it is a question of grasping the nexus—neither ‘historical’ nor ‘geographic’ of history and transcendental geology, this very time that is space, this very space that is time, which I will have rediscovered by my analysis of the visible and the flesh” (p. 259).

Finally, I’m reminded of The Universe Story (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992), by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry: “There is eventually only one story, the story of the universe.  Every form of being is integral with this comprehensive story.” (The Universe Story, p. 268)

(Re)Introducing Aristotle, 1: Nature and Things

Aristotle is underrated.  He is not some dry systematic thinker who abstracted and oversimplified the insights of his teacher.  Plato and Aristotle are too often reduced to straw men who are guilty of establishing the structures (especially dualisms) that have caused most of the world’s subsequent problems.  Some people rescue Plato by reminding everyone of the complexities inherent in his use of dialogues, but it’s been harder to rescue Aristotle, due in part to a long history of Latinate translations (substance, actuality) that have made it hard for some of us to appreciate humor and passion for truth.  The translations of Aristotle by Joe Sachs are a breath of fresh air.  Sachs makes it easier to see that Aristotle is not the dualistic straw man that many make him out to be.  Aristotle is much weirder than that.  In fact, his attention to individual things makes him a forerunner of Whitehead’s ontological principle, Latour’s actor-network theory, and object-oriented ontology.  Paraphrasing Heidegger, if you want to understand contemporary philosophy, you should study Aristotle for ten to fifteen years.  Using Sachs’ translations, let’s just look at the basics.

Aristotle’s investigation into nature (phusis) can be approached through the definition of nature offered at in the second book of the Physics.  “Nature is a certain source and cause of being moved and of coming to rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself and not incidentally” (192b20).  An investigation into nature, then, is an investigation into the sources and causes of motion and ultimately into being as such (Metaphysics 1003a22).  Whatever has a source of motion inherent in itself is said to have a nature.  Furthermore, whatever has this inherent power to move and change must persist and endure through the change of which it has the power.  The cosmos remains a whole while its elements move and change (1040b9).  The human being remains a human being while it becomes educated. The plant remains a plant while its parts change and grow.

Whatever has a nature, then, has being as an independent thing—thinghood (ousia), which is characterized by material (hule) stretching toward a form (morphe) (Physics, 192a 20).  An independent thing as an active whole is said to be an underlying thing (hupokeimenon).  A body is an underlying thing if it endures through the change of attributes.  The underlying thing is always some material moving toward form.  Moreover, deprivation of form is still form.  Material is always swinging from form to form.

When investigating the nature of things, Aristotle examines the hypotheses of his predecessors.  His definition of nature as a source of motion responds to the denial of motion by some philosophers, e.g. Parmenides (184b18).  The natural way of an independent thing is sometimes identified with the unarranged material of the thing.  The philosophers that hypothesized elements or atoms as the nature of things, e.g. Thales and Democritus, supposed that it was these elements or atoms that were the primary causes of things.  Indeed, unarranged material is part of a thing and does affect its movement causally.  However, the thinghood of a thing is also determined by its form, which is the look that is disclosed in speech (eidos) (193a30).

An investigation into nature must account for the material together with the form of independent things.    Aristotle argues that the form of a thing is more indicative of its nature than the material (193b9).  A thing is more itself when its form is being-at-work (energeia) than when its material is only potentially formed according to what has been disclosed in speech.  Some of Aristotle’s predecessors identified the nature of a thing with its form, e.g. Pythagoreans and Platonists (Metaphysics, 985b-87b).  They investigate the form of natural bodies as separate and motionless.  Those who investigate merely the form or material of a thing (or the separated form and material) do not grasp its nature as a moving, changing, independent thing.  Aristotle investigates the form of natural bodies as they appear with their moving material.  The form of a natural body is always the form being-at-work with some moving material.

Let’s summarize what we know of Aristotle’s conception of natural bodies before we continue.  Something has a nature if it is a source and cause of motion and change in itself.  Thus, a natural body has the being of an independent thing (ousia), thinghood.  The cause of motion in a natural body is its underlying material, which is forming itself to its look disclosed in speech, moving from the potency (dunamis) of form to the being-at-work (energeia) of form. To get a clearer and more complete understanding of the cause of motion in natural bodies, let us further explicate the relationship between form and being-at-work.

Aristotle argued that the form of a thing is more its nature than the underlying material, for the underlying material moves according to its look disclosed in speech.  Furthermore, material is said to be what it is when it is being-at-work in its form, not when it is merely potentially in form.  Thus, form is that which a thing keeps being in order for the thing to be at all.  What a thing keeps being in order to be at all (to ti en einai) is often called its essence.  Form, as was said earlier, is the being-at-work of material.  Form is the being-at-work that a thing keeps on being in order to be at all.

Aristotle coins a term to describe this self-maintaining being-at-work by combining a word that means “complete” (enteles) with one that means “to be a certain way” (echein).  In Joe Sachs’ translation, the resulting word means “being-at-work-staying-itself” (entelecheia), which is sometimes translated poorly as the Latinate “actuality.”  Moreover, entelecheia puns on a word that means persistence (endelecheia) by adding a word that means finality or completion (telos).  The completion of a thing is that for the sake of which it works.  For a natural body, the form is its telos, and the being-at-work of form is being-at-work-staying-itself.  Sachs also translates entelecheia as “holding together actively as a whole” (On the Soul, 412b9).  My favorite translation is Ralph Manheim’s translation of Heidegger’s translation of entelecheia: “the holding (preserving)-itself-in-the-ending (limit)” (Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics [Yale, 1959], p. 60).

We have discussed three different ways of causing or being responsible for a natural thing: the material of a thing, the form to which it has potential to stretch, and the final state of being-at-work-staying-itself as a complete, independent thing.   Aristotle also discusses another cause of a thing, which is the original impetus for the movement of material toward form, sometimes called the efficient cause.  The efficient cause of a natural body is what allows the other causes to come together.  In this manner, the father causes a child (Physics, 194b30).  Aristotle argues that the first cause—formal, telic, and efficient—of all motion and being is the being-at-work-staying-itself of intellect (nous), which exists co-eternally with potent material (Metaphysics, 1072b 20).

Before I say more about the role of contemplative intellect in causing the movement and being of natural bodies, I want to examine Aristotle’s conception of life, which will lead us to a discussion of the soul and intellect.  That will have to wait for later.