The Problem with Descartes: It’s Not Dualism

Some people, a lot of people, treat René Descartes as a sort of bogeyman of modern philosophy. Somehow, in the first half of the seventeenth century, Descartes sundered the seamless fabric of Being into two factions, mind and body, a thinking thing and an extended thing, res cogitans and res extensa. With that dualism set in place, soul was thereby evacuated from the universe…except for a tiny piece of property that soul could rent out in the human head, accessed through a steep driveway in the pineal gland. In a universe devoid of soul, humans lost any motivation or justification for caring about anything beyond the solipsistic ego. Thanks a lot, René! There’s no concern for other humans, for community, or for the natural world. Mechanistic thinking thus spurred the rapacious destruction of ecosocial integrity through the development of industrial technologies and market economies. Now, as humans are sawing off the environmental limb that we’re sitting on, it’s more urgent than ever to overcome Cartesian dualism and find a way back into the seamless interconnectivity of existence. No, not really. Something is very wrong with that story. “In order to seek truth,” as Descartes says in his Principles of Philosophy, “it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” Well, one of the things of which I’m doubtful is the idea that dualism is what’s wrong with Descartes.

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Whitehead in the Clouds: Objects and Relations

Graham Harman and other proponents of object-oriented ontology (OOO) follow Whitehead in taking up the task of articulating a speculative metaphysics, which is a relatively untimely task, situated amidst multifarious post-Kantian prohibitions against metaphysics. In particular, OOO follows Whitehead’s “ontological principle,” affirming the irreducibility of actual entities. The relationship between OOO and Whitehead looks mutually beneficial. OOO benefits by getting support for its metaphysical orientation toward entities, things, i.e., “objects.” [Does it need to be reiterated that this is a general sense of object as entity, not the modern sense of object in opposition to (or participation with) subject?] Whitehead benefits by getting a boost in popularity, making Whitehead more relevant and interesting for contemporary thought. Despite this opportunity for mutual benefit, both partners aren’t totally into it. Harman refers to Whitehead regularly (including in his latest, Immaterialism), acknowledging Whitehead’s unique contributions to metaphysics. How do Whiteheadians respond? Let’s face it. It’s not the mutual admiration club. Guess what, OOO? Process philosophers just aren’t that into you. Continue reading

Toward an Ecological Civilization: Whitehead and Ecological Democracy

I’ll be giving a couple of presentations at the upcoming conference, Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization, which is taking place early June in Claremont, California. It’s a massive assemblage of a few different conferences: the 10th International Whitehead Conference, the 9th International Forum on Ecological Civilization, the Inaugural Pando Populus Conference, the Pilgrim Place Centennial Celebration, and the Process & Faith Summer Institute.

I’m on a panel with some of my closest coconspirators discussing cosmopolitics and the Journey of the Universe project. I’ll have more to say about that later. I’m also happy to be part of a track focusing on Alfred North Whitehead’s contributions to the philosophy of religion. Here’s the abstract for the paper I’ll deliver for that track: Continue reading

Atheism = philosophy of religion

One of Deleuze’s greatest (and most frequently cited) questions: “Why is philosophy so compromised with God?”   The question comes from a course on Spinoza in 1980.

Throughout most of its history, philosophy has been so involved with discussions of God that the philosophy-theology boundary seems extremely vague.  Why do philosophers focus so extensively on God and God-talk?  He responds to the question through an analogy with the prevalence of God in modern painting.

Why is there so much focus on God in modern painting?  One way of thinking about it is this: the artistic activity of painting wells up out of religious feeling, such that painting inevitably expresses some religious dependence on or devotion to divinity.  In that case, religion is an inevitable constraint on art: the necessary dependence of art on human-divine relationships.  Deleuze isn’t interested in that way of thinking about it.  He risks another hypothesis.

For modern painters, God is not a necessary constraint, but is a site of “maximum emancipation.”  With God, the painter can do things that can’t be done with humans or other creatures.  With God, painting finds “a kind of freedom for itself that it would never have found otherwise.” This means that a pious and impious painter “are not opposed to each other because the way painting invests the divine is a way which is nothing but pictorial,” which is to say, nothing but artistic conditions for the “racial emancipation” of the painter and of the lines, colors, and forms of the world.

“With God, everything is permitted.”  God allows the painter to break with the paradigm of representation: “to achieve a liberation of forms, to push the forms to the point where the forms have nothing to do with an illustration. […] the lines and colors lose all necessity to be verisimilar […] to resemble something. It’s the great enfranchisement of lines and colors […].”  This liberation from representation means that the use of God also liberates painting from religion, theology…and God.  “So much so that, in a sense, atheism has never been external to religion: atheism is the artistic power [puissance] at work on [travaille] religion.”

Just as painters used God to liberate percepts and affects, philosophers are so compromised with God because they are using God to liberate concepts from representation (thus liberating concepts from any representation of God and, mutatis mutandis, having done with the judgments of God).  Atheism is the conceptual puissance at work on religion. Spinoza’s pantheistic atheism is a case in point.

This is not postsecular or postmodern theology cleverly defining itself as atheism.  In this Spinoza course, Deleuze is explicitly affirming atheism, secularism, and modernity for their subordination of God to the demands of speculative philosophical invention.  Atheism is the philosophy of religion.

Rethinking Religion with Whitehead, Deleuze, and Segall

At Footnotes2Plato, my friend and colleague Matt Segall posted a thoughtful essay, “Worldly Religion in Deleuze and Whitehead: On the Possibility of a Secular Divinity.”  As the title suggests, the essay aims to rethink religion as worldly religion by thinking with Deleuze and Whitehead.  And, of course, there are plenty of references to Plato.

It’s a good essay, indicative of a new trend in Whitehead studies: connecting Whitehead to poststructuralist philosophers.  It’s also indicative of a new trend in Deleuze studies: articulating the spiritual/religious aspects of Deleuze’s thought by connecting Deleuze—a staunch critic of all things religious—to theological elements in the works of his influences (e.g., Whitehead, Bergson, Spinoza, Cusa, Bruno). 

I find the Whitehead-Deleuze encounter to be fruitful, and I’m excited to see it unfold in increasingly rich contrasts.  As it continues unfolding, I’m sure we’ll see more attention to Guattari’s role in all of this.  Guattari is often dissociated from Deleuze (e.g., Badiou, who dismisses D&G’s co-written works as an aberration in Deleuze’s philosophy) or he is assimilated into Deleuze (e.g., the common practice of citing D&G’s co-written works by using phrases like “Deleuze says” or “according to Deleuze”).  Something quite unique to the philosophical tradition happened with the conjunction of Deleuze and Guattari, a philosopher and non-philosopher, and an encounter with Deleuze must encounter that conjunction.  But I digress…

I’ll conclude with one of Matt’s insights into Deleuze’s and Whitehead’s contributions to “a world-renewing medicinal brew sorely needed in the contemporary world.”

Whitehead shares with Deleuze a sense for the importance of experimental thinking.  In the context of religious experimentation, asking whether or not God really exists becomes irrelevant.  What becomes important is the sort of thoughts and practices that belief in God makes possible for the believer, and for the society to which the believer belongs.


Adoration, Anniversary

My first post on this blog went up one year ago today.  It had something to do with thinking after postmodernism and postsecularism.  Today, that’s still what my practice of thinking is after.  Today, I’m in the middle of Jean-Luc Nancy’s second installment in his deconstruction of Christianity, Adoration.  It follows an opening of Christianity, exposing its various theisms to the open sense of the world, and sheltering its exposure without replacing it with another “-ism” (including atheism, humanism, rationalism, irrationalism, etc.).  It warms my heart, opens my body…   

Adoration is addressed to what exceeds address.  Or rather: it is addressed without seeking to reach, without any intention at all.  It can accept to not even be addressed: to be unable to aim, or designate, or recognize the outside to which it is dispatched.  It can even be unable to identify it as an outside, since it takes place here, nowhere else, but here in the open.  Nothing but an open mouth, or perhaps an eye, an ear: nothing but an open body.  Bodies are adoration in all their openings. (20) 

There is not even “atheism”; “atheist” is not enough!  It is the positing of the principle that must be emptied.  It is not enough to say that God takes leave, withdraws, or is incommensurable.  It is even less a question of placing another principle on his throne–Mankind, Reason, Society.  It is instead a question of coming to grips with this: the world rests on nothing–and this is its keenest sense. […] Let there be no more place for God–and in this way, let an opening, which we can disucss elsewhere whether to call “divine,” open. (32-33)


(Re)Introducing Aristotle, 4: Degrees of Freedom

Following the previous installment in this series, this episode continues the elaboration of Han Jonas’ updated version of Aristotle in a philosophy that integrates the insights of Whitehead and Heidegger.  In particular, it’s time to talk about degrees of freedom and the uniqueness of humans.  Let’s begin by thinking with Jonas’ philosophical biology.

While animals have perception and some sort of capacity to form images or tools, they apply their potential for merely vital, practical ends (Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life [1966], 158).  However, image-making in its proper sense is only achieved in the new level of freedom attained by humans (170).  To be able to make an image entails the ability to behold an image.  This means one must be capable of discerning differences between the image, imagined, and the material substratum of the image.  Nonhuman animals cannot perceive mere likeness, and thus cannot distinguish between the image, the imagined, and the material substratum.  It can see something as other or the same, but not similar.  Thus, animals can imagine in the limited sense of bringing together images, but these images are bound up with sensation. 

In human beings, the image of a thing is understood as a separate presence.  It necessarily follows, then, that humans can alter and make images, for they see them as separate things.  In the mind of human beings, form becomes completely separable from matter.  Humans have more control over form because they understand form by itself, but this means humans—with metabolizing bodies—also experience great distances through their apprehension of form by itself. 

The human understanding of form is also evident in the human capacity for naming—that is, ordering the world according to the general forms of things.  “The generality of the name is the generality of the image” (173).  Humans can know that a thing is “this” and not “that” by comparing the forms of things ordered in naming.  The new degree of freedom witnessed in human beings is what makes possible the experience of theoretical and practical truth.         

Like Aristotle, Jonas argues that the ascending degrees of freedom inherent in organism and the becoming of natural bodies in general might have its origins in some divine act (275).  Ultimately, however, Jonas argues that the mystery of origins is closed to us (3).  The divine act Jonas imagines is the original giving up of the divine essence to the venture of becoming and experience.  This venture keeps matter oscillating between forms.  Somehow form gains freedom from matter as organic life begins to stir.  As form gains freedom in higher organisms, form comes to experience its own form and divinity. 

The divine venture is undertaken for the sake of the identity of divine form; all becoming is the preservation of divine form.  The freedom of human beings allows form to be completely itself.  Humans can neglect the call issuing from freedom, forget the origin of truth, and forget the divine venture.  Indeed, humans are given the precarious task of completing the image of divinity, for better or worse.

Jonas’ interpretation of human freedom relies upon the distinctions between matter, life, and mind (intellect) set forth by Aristotle, but updated with a blend of Heideggerian existential phenomenology and Whiteheadian panexperientialism.  Both Aristotle and Jonas begin their investigations with a view to their contemporaries and current opinions about their questioned subject matter.  The opinions inherited by each philosopher provide the groundwork upon which they develop their arguments and terminology.  Their own accounts attempt to get beyond whatever impasses are preventing a complete understanding of the subject matter.  Aristotle tries to get beyond the impasses of the theories of the natural scientists and mathematicians of his day with his account of an intertwined matter and form of the complete, independent thing.  Jonas tries to get beyond impasses concerning the relationship between mind and life with his existential interpretation of biological facts, which discloses the reciprocal participation of organism in mind and mind in organism. 

For both Aristotle and Jonas, any living thing—plants, animals, and humans—stays itself and maintains its form by metabolizing, acting upon and being acted upon by the things in its surrounding world.  Humans have a unique degree of freedom through which we have a particularly great abundance of things in our world, not the least of which are images.  If form is the work of divinity, human imagination and contemplation share in divine activity, and indeed, all becoming is an ongoing divine venture.  But that’s a big if.