Kant, like many philosophers, is notoriously difficult to read. Some people blame his proclivity for pedantic exuberance. That’s not totally inaccurate, but for me, the specific cause of the difficulty in my reading of Kant is that he is so wrong, more specifically, so incapable and comprised. It reminds me that, in British English, Kant and “Can’t” are homophones. Continue reading
Coexistentialism and the Unbearable
Intimacy of Ecological Emergency
Ecocritical Theory and Practice Series, Lexington Books, 2016
The philosophy of existentialism is undergoing an ecological renewal, as global warming, mass extinction, and other signs of the planetary scale of human actions are making it glaringly apparent that existence is always ecological coexistence. One of the most urgent problems in the current ecological emergency is that humans cannot bear to face the emergency. Its earth-shattering implications are ignored in favor of more solutions, fixes, and sustainability transitions. Solutions cannot solve much when they cannot face what it means to be human amidst unprecedented uncertainty and intimate interconnectedness. Attention to such uncertainty and interconnectedness is what “ecological existentialism” (Deborah Bird Rose) or “coexistentialism” (Timothy Morton) is all about.
This book follows Rose, Morton, and many others (e.g., Jean-Luc Nancy, Peter Sloterdijk, and Luce Irigaray) who are currently taking up the styles of thinking conveyed in existentialism, renewing existentialist affirmations of experience, paradox, uncertainty, and ambiguity, and extending existentialism beyond humans to include attention to the uniqueness and strangeness of all beings—all humans and nonhumans woven into ecological coexistence. Along the way, coexistentialism finds productive alliances and tensions amidst many areas of inquiry, including ecocriticism, ecological humanities, object-oriented ontology, feminism, phenomenology, deconstruction, new materialism, and more. This is a book for anyone who seeks to refute cynicism and loneliness and affirm coexistence.
“With refreshing style and intellectual forcefulness, Sam Mickey widens the scope of existentialism and shows how it offers important resources to address our urgent ecological situation. Here existentialism becomes coexistentialism, and through it we glimpse a chance to strengthen our existence together on a fragile planet. Make this book part of your coexistence!”
— Clayton Crockett, author of Deleuze Beyond Badiou and Radical Political Theology
“Is there an ecological style of engaging with things that aren’t me, yet share and even overlap with my being in some sense? The paradoxes and absurdities of existence have only become heightened as we have entered an ecological age, and it’s about time a writer committed to existentialism took up the challenge of working with those paradoxes. This book is up to speed with the ethical implications of our growing understanding of the symbiotic real and with what the author, quoting Björk, calls its necessary sense of ’emergency.’ In trenchant and engaging prose, not to mention deep engagements with philosophy, Sam Mickey lays it out for you.”
— Timothy Morton, author of Dark Ecology and Hyperobjects
I recently stumbled upon this 2007 Philosophy Now article by Colin Wilson, “Whitehead as Existentialist,” thanks to a retweet from Matt Segall—a Whitehead expert and the brilliant blogger (and soon-to-be PhD!) behind Footnotes to Plato. There’s never been any secure border separating who is in and out of existentialism, so why not? If someone wants to include Alfred North Whitehead, it’s fine with me. In our time of radical uncertainty and uncanniness, existentialist ways of thinking and being are perhaps more relevant than ever, so I don’t see any reason to close the door on Whitehead’s participation in any movement related to existentialism. In some sense, all you need to do to be an existentialist is exist, so including Whitehead seems pretty easy. Right? Not really. Although I appreciate Whiteheadian alliances and solidarities, it is more accurate to say that Whitehead is not an existentialist. Whitehead is in fact not an existentialist, not a representative, exemplar, or example of existentialism. Continue reading
Coexistentialism: Unbearable Intimacy, Ecological Emergency. The manuscript is finished and off to the publisher. It’s around 110,000 words. The best thing about coexistentialism is the “co-,” indicating an ecological redistribution of Heidegger’s Mitsein (being-with) to include all beings, human, nonhuman, and otherwise. The worst thing is the “ism,” which is no doubt risky; it can degenerate into a lazy substitute for thinking along with other “isms,” but it could (I hope) facilitate solidarity, shared struggle, shared suffering, and shared feasting. Existence is not the best or the worst, neither optimus nor pessimus. It just is: existence. Continue reading
In the earlier parts of this Aristotelian exposition, we covered Aristotle’s conception of nature and the thinghood of things, and then moved on to talk about Aristotle’s conception of life and soul. In this episode, I want to consider what an Aristotelian philosophy could look like if it was updated in a context that took the works of Heidegger and Whitehead into account. Object-oriented philosophy would be a good example, but I want to look back a little earlier to the works of one of Heidegger’s students, Hans Jonas, specifically in light of The Phenomenon of Life, wherein Jonas presents a phenomenological investigation into life, which “offers an ‘existential’ interpretation of biological facts” (p. xxiii). That is, he describes the facts established by the natural sciences and interprets them according to the individual existence of the things named by the facts. Although the title sounds like a Teilhard allusion, and Jonas explicitly refers to his similarity to Teilhard’s panpsychism, Jonas prefers Whitehead’s philosophy of the “feeling” of actuality, which is “on a considerably higher philosophical plane” than Teilhard (25n2).
Jonas, like Aristotle, supposes a sort of hierarchy from the activity of matter to that of mind. However, Jonas attempts to leave behind the anthropocentricism of modern idealist and existential philosophies and the materialism and epiphenomenalism that hold sway over the natural sciences. The first part of our explication of Jonas’ hypothesis (that the organic prefigures mind, which still remains part of the organic) will discuss the conception of organism that he articulates in the light of modern science. From there, we will discuss the conception of mind that Jonas articulates.
Humans first interpreted the nature of things as being infused with life or spirit. Animism and hylozoism are terms often used to describe the panpsychic worldviews of early humanity. For early humanity, spirit was everywhere, even with matter (7). However, this vitalistic monism did not hold sway for long. Various articulations of dualism held sway for some of the late ancient period until a completely mechanistic view of the world prevails in modernity. Modern cosmology places man in a mechanistic, inanimate universe, which accords not with any teleology, but with the laws of mechanical inertia. Jonas argues that this movement from a vitalistic monism to a mechanistic monism is the result of the long ascendance of dualism out of the confrontation between early animist-vitalists and the fact of death. We can see this dualism at work in the Orphic formula soma—sema, the body—a tomb, which held sway over many Gnostic and Christian interpretations of nature (13).
Dualism culminates in Cartesian ontology, wherein the organism is taken for a mere occurrence of an unfeeling, unwilling, res extensa (21). Eventually, even the cognitive function of man is taken as a mere epiphenomena arising out of lifeless matter (88). Materialism (or epiphenomenalism) and the aforementioned dualisms are accompanied by nihilism, wherein man alone is free and thinks in an uncaring, unknowing, indifferent nature (213). However, natural bodies are not merely extended! Humanity is not alone in its freedom. If we attend to the self-showing of an organism, we see a thing that stays alive by continually exchanging its material, in short, metabolizing. The organism has an identity apart from, though not independent of, its extended material. The fact of life existentially interpreted reveals the coincidence of an organic body’s outward presence to the world with its freedom, self-identity, and finality (17-19).
Jonas interprets the biological fact of metabolism as an activity of the organism that maintains its self-identity and transcendence (75). The constant exchange of material between the organism and its environment is indicative of the organism’s activity for its own sake. Jonas claims that even lifeless material maintains itself, although with no distinction between self and other. Matter is always already informed, ceaselessly adapting to different forms. Similarly, continually appropriating various materials, the organism tries to maintain its form and stay itself. Thus, with the organism we see a freedom of form from its material accompanied by a need to maintain its form as apart from matter.
The degrees of freedom of form vary with respect to different organisms. For instance, plants generally have less organic freedom than animals, since their metabolic activity involves whatever material is immediately present to their boundaries. The world is always acting upon the plant directly and vice versa. For Jonas, plants do not have a formed world in the proper sense (which sounds like a very Heideggerian statement). There is an atmospheric irritability upon the boundaries of the plant. However, this foreign irritability affecting the plant has not yet opened a world out there. The distinction between self and environing world is only germinal in plants (103).
With the animal kingdom, a higher degree of needful freedom is attained. Animals, like plants, metabolize and exchange material with the environment to maintain their identity. However, animals also exhibit motility, perception, and emotion (99). The ability to perceive opens up the self-world distinction. In plants, the world is what is directly affective. With perception, which is necessarily accompanied by motility and emotion, the world is more “there” as something that must be surmounted and affected through distance. Animal life is characterized by the presence of distance. This distance is traversed and felt, both sensually and emotionally.
Thus far we have seen the different levels of freedom of form inherent in inorganic matter, which is completely bound up with form, and organic life, which maintains its free form by changing its material. Organic life is itself stratified according to varying degrees of freedom. The plant maintains its form by metabolizing with the material of its immediate environment. The animal maintains its form by metabolizing with the material of its environment as disclosed in the mediating acts of perception, motility, and emotion. In the next episode, the focus will shift to the peculiar freedom of the human and the role of mind in the hierarchy of life.
“When someone tells me that they are not really religious, but that they are a very spiritual person, I want to punch their face. Hard.” (1)
I just finished reading David Webster’s short and fun book Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy (Zero Books, 2012). I was happy to read a book that offers a critical analysis of contemporary spirituality, both because I teach theology and religious studies and because I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which contains a vast array of flavors of “spirituality.”
Before reading the book, I read an interview with Webster about the project. The interview makes some interesting points, including Webster giving Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a response to the question of what book he wishes he’d written. Along those lines, I would say that Webster’s critique of spirituality is good, but it’s not quite as critical as Hunter S. Thompson’s, nor is it as hospitable and affirmative. In any case, Webster’s overall thesis seems correct: contemporary spirituality is indeed making us stupid, selfish, and unhappy.
Webster is careful to say that he is talking about contemporary spirituality in general. He acknowledges that some people use the word “spiritual” or “spirituality” in constructive, life-enhancing ways (e.g., Pierre Hadot, for whom “spiritual exercises” are part of philosophy as a way of life). Aside from such rare instances of spirituality, contemporary spirituality does make us stupid, selfish, and unhappy.
There is a cafeteria/buffet style of pluralism and syncretism that allows spiritual people to pick and choose what they want and don’t want from each tradition (even picking things that aren’t compatible). This apparent inclusivity and openness harbors some serious anti-intellectualism. Debates between competing truth claims? Those are only for religious people (dogmatists, fanatics) or for materialists (spiritually immature reductionists). Truly spiritual people transcend debates by participating in the perennial truth of mystic unity.
In short, spirituality is “faith-lite” (17). Whereas religion (or Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”) makes heavy demands on practitioners to adjust their thinking, feeling, and acting to fit with what’s been revealed according to the tradition, spirituality doesn’t make such demands, and it thereby makes us stupid or at least intellectually lazy. It also makes us selfish.
Institutions (religious and secular) are forces of community building and organizing. Spirituality is about a personalized inner journey to the true nature of the self. That privileging of interiority makes spiritual people less engaged in social and political activities. “Spirituality cedes the world to the worldly” (7).
Ironically, while critiquing consumerist materialism, the only kind of community that spirituality engenders is consumerist community, where members are all buying the same kind of magazines and meditation retreat packages, patronizing similar therapists and life-coaches. Spirituality sells happiness, but that happiness is not authentic. Webster follows the existentialist approach to happiness, for which happiness can only be attained by resolutely facing one’s own finitude and mortality. Spirituality doesn’t face the fear and loathing of existence, the abyss. Instead, it covers over the abyss with easy answers about an immortal soul or about happiness coming from within. When happiness comes from within, you don’t have to worry about the countless others outside of your spiritual bubble who are far from happy. Thus privatized, happiness becomes the name for a rather unjust and miserable way to live.
Webster’s diagnosis of contemporary spirituality is great, and I appreciate his appeal to existentialism. I also appreciate that he teaches religion and seems to have an extensive knowledge of South Asian religions. However, there are a few big problems with his analysis. First, his existentialism sounds too humanistic (too Sartrean, not enough Kierkegaard or Heidegger). Although he attempts to distance his position from humanism in the concluding two paragraphs of the book (too little, too late!), he only distances himself from the British Humanist Associations version of humanism, and even then it’s a very small distance. Webster seems to think that, if we want/need rituals, “then we are as capable of inventing them without spirituality and religion as we have been when we invented them as part of religious traditions” (75). Who is this rather capable “we”? It is a bunch of humans, as if the plants, animals, seasons, songs, and dances involved in rituals are so involved solely because of human inventiveness, and not because of any other-than-human power (which doesn’t have to be God or Being, but could also be the agency of plants and animals).
Along with Webster’s humanism, his atheism is also a problem. Let me put it another way: he gives no account of the ontological weight of angels, spirits, and God. Maybe angels and deities don’t exist, but how do they have the impacts and effects they do? Belief is one thing, but what about self-declared “spiritual” people who are actually having visions and encounters with these things? Are we just going to chalk it up to hallucination? Imagination? If so, what is the ontological significance of a hallucination or of image? Even if they’re hallucinations, they’re still powerful, and not something to be dismissed as if they’re merely a facade for anti-intellectualism or death-denial. On this point, I think a better critique of spirituality is given in that book that Webster would have liked to write, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter S. Thompson critiques theism, Satanism, and hippy spirituality while still honoring the reality (or hyperreality) of hallucinations, images, and even God.
Overall, this is a very enjoyable and thought-provoking book. It’s short, accessible, and clever. I’ll probably use it for teaching my course on society and religion.