What is Philosophy?

What is philosophy? There are so many definitions of philosophy. It is not altogether unlikely that the “What is…?” question is not the best way to approach a definition of philosophy. There are many other important questions for defining and describing philosophy. Who are philosophers? What do philosophers do? How does one become a philosopher? How, where, and when does philosophy happen? If you want to keep the question of being (ti esti, “What is”), maybe you could at least pluralize or verbalize philosophy, so that “What is philosophy?” becomes “What are philosophies?” or “What is philosophizing?” (“What are philosophizings?”). In any case, all of these questions hover around the same point. Whatever philosophy is/does, it seems particularly involved in defining itself, maintaining itself, like it has to keep turning on the engine in order to keep driving, continually initiating itself, bringing itself back to itself. In short, philosophizing maintains a constant connection to its own beginning. Philosophy is perpetually preparatory, programmatically provisional. Continue reading

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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

Place in Whitehead, Deleuze, Derrida

Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida each discuss place by engaging, among other things, the discourse on chora (“place”) in Plato’s Timaeus, where chora is described as a “third thing” that is neither sensible (matter) nor intelligible (form), but a generative relational matrix that organizes and disturbs form/matter interactions.  The recoveries of chora at work in these thinkers draw on their related concepts of creativity (Whitehead), difference-in-itself (Deleuze), and différance (Derrida).  As a locus of creative differences, chora supports their respective efforts to transform or overcome Platonism and its form/matter hierarchy, thereby making room for understandings of place as exceeding the limits of dualistic hierarchies.

This fall, I’ll be presenting papers on this topic on a couple different  occasions, including the 5th annual meeting of the Pacific Association for the Continental Tradition (PACT) in San Francisco and the 17th annual meeting of the International Association for Environmental Philosophy (IAEP, pronounced like “yep”) in Eugene, Oregon.  I’ll discuss the specific ways in which Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida each interprets chora and how those interpretations are indicative of complementary yet antagonistic possibilities for understanding and responding to actual places.  Instead of taking sides, I claim that those possibilities are at their most relevant and compelling when they are brought into a complex contrast with one another.

For Whitehead and Deleuze, chora is described in terms of a positive becoming, whereas Derrida writes about chora as an excluded or marginalized alterity.  Those different accounts reflect different conceptions of transcendence and immanence.  While Derrida maintains a Levinasian tendency to privilege the transcendence of alterity, Deleuze is committed to immanence, notwithstanding their respective attempts to deconstruct transcendental signifieds and liberate events from transcendence/immanence binaries.  Whitehead resolves the opposition by conceiving of a mutually implicative relationship between transcendence and immanence (in theological terms, panentheism).

Although each of these thinkers intends to affirm an ethical commitment to place, that does not necessarily translate into a commitment to some actual place(s).  For instance, Derrida affirms the ethically compelling alterity of place, including human and nonhuman others associated with place, and he does so with much attention to language and ontology but relatively little engagement in natural sciences, thus compromising his ability to account for some specificities of actual places.  That contrasts with the evolutionary and cosmological repetitions of chora given by the more scientifically inclined Whitehead and Deleuze, for whom the task of understanding and responding to places requires an integration of speculative metaphysics with empirical inquiry.  A crucial contrast between Whitehead and Deleuze is that the latter tends to undermine the specificity of actual places by explaining actual entities in terms of an underlying field of virtual multiplicities.  More pluralistically, Whitehead’s ontological principle affirms that actual entities are irreducibly real, such that a place is a field of becoming not in the sense of an underlying virtual field but in the sense of a dynamic network of actual entities in mutually constitutive relations.

This is not to say that Whitehead’s recovery of chora is better than Derrida’s or Deleuze’s.  Whitehead is more attentive to the specificities of actual places.  However, his “God” and “eternal objects” might unnecessarily complicate empirical inquiries, in contrast to Deleuze’s immanent experiments with chora, which are more affirmative of the non-teleological and self-organizing capacities of places.  Among these three thinkers, Derrida is perhaps most well-suited for discerning ways in which different (undecidable) determinations of place involve exclusions and negations, which constitute and disturb the boundaries of language, reason, gender, and species.  In sum, I hope to convey some ways in which Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida contribute to knowledge of and ethical responses to actual places, with the unique benefits and limitations of those contributions becoming apparent amid the creative differences between them.

Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time

I just got the new issue of the journal Environmental Philosophy.  The theme for this issue is time and ecology (check out the table of contents).  I was excited to see a piece by Deborah Bird Rose, “Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time.”  It’s a delightful piece, and to make it even better, it’s available as a pdf HERE.

Rose discusses the ethical implications of the anthropogenic mass extinction of species currently underway.  She draws on James Hatley’s work on ethical time, which is basically a Levinasian approach to ethics.  Incidentally, Hatley has a piece in this issue as well, and he is likewise addressing the ethical impications of the mass extinction event. 

Emphasizing the biosocial dimensions of the Hatley/Levinas approach, Rose draws on her research on multispecies kinships, specifically in light of her research with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory of Australia.  She articulates a beautiful example of the coevolution of flying foxes and their preferred trees.  She also makes a compelling point about the practice of writing as an act of witness.  Some quotes:

My question is how we may encounter ethics in the world of multispecies differences and connectivities, which is to say—in the world of ecological death, gifts, and flows. (135)

If we were to hold ourselves open to the experience of nonhuman groups, we would see multispecies gifts in this system of sequence, synchrony, connectivity, and mutual benefit. We would see that every creature has a multispecies history—it came into being through its own forebears and through others. Each individual is both itself in the present, and the history of its forebears and mutualists. In the presence of myrtaceous trees we would see flying foxes; in the presence of flying foxes we would see dry sclerophyll woodlands and rainforests. We would see histories and futures—embodied knots of multispecies time.
      Within this wider world of multispecies knots, ethics may be understood as an interface—a site of encounter and nourishment. (136)

Writing is an act of witness; it is an effort not only to testify to the lives of others but to do so in ways that bring into our ken the entanglements that hold the lives of all of us within the skein of life. (139)

Life is not only about suffering, of course, and my focus has been on the exuberant joy of ethical time. Flying foxes and their co-evolved blossoms express life’s glorious desire, the call and response, the encounter, and the great patterns of life, death, sustenance and renewal that intersect across species and generations to form flows of life-giving life. If we choose silence in response to the unmaking of all this exuberance, we ourselves become deader than dead, for without an ethical sensibility we lose our capacity to be responsive to the dynamic exuberance of life. (139)

Saving the World from Sovereignty

The Posthumanities book series at the University of Minnesota Press keeps releasing terrific books.  I finally got around to reading Mick Smith’s book, Against Ecological Sovereignty: Ethics, Biopolitics, and Saving the Natural World (2011).  Making important contributions to political ecology, environmental ethics, and continental philosophy, Smith presents an approach to radical ecology grounded in a thorough critique of the concept of sovereignty. 

Smith focuses extensively on Agamben’s analysis of biopolitics and the reduction of humans to “bare life,” which Smith relates to Heidegger’s analysis of the reduction of nature to Bestand (“standing reserve” or “resource”).  Arendt, Bataille, Benjamin, Latour, Levinas, and Nancy also make frequent appearances, as Smith draws on their works to support his critique of sovereignty and his ethicopolitical vision of an open, diverse, and posthumanist “intimate ecology of responsibility” (167).  Furthermore, in a refreshing tone, he does not propose a solution to the environmental crisis.

In any case, unlike the majority of people writing on the environment, I do not have a recipe for saving the natural world, a set of rules to follow, a list of guiding principles, or a favorite ideology or institutional form to promote as a solution.  For before all this, we need to ask what “saving the natural world” might mean.  And this requires, as I have argued, sustaining ethics, and politics, and ecology over and against sovereign power—the exercise of which reduces people to bare life and the more-than-human world to standing reserve. […]  What we need are plural ways to imagine a world without sovereign power, without human dominion. (220)

Saving nature, saving the planet, saving Earth.  These are usually just more exercises of sovereignty.  To the extent that we should “save” some beings in the natural world (e.g., save the whales!), saving must take on a meaning that is not encumbered by sovereign power. 

To save the whales is to free them from all claims of human sovereignty, to release them into their singularity, their being such as it is—whatever it is—quodlibet ens, and into flows of evolutionary time, of natural history, just as they release themselves into the flows of the world’s oceans.  This “saving” is an ethicopolitical action. (103) 

Although Smith is focusing primarily on criticizing human sovereignty over nature, he is clear that this does not mean replacing human sovereignty with the sovereignty of nature. 

It is not a call to recognize the sovereignty of nature over all human activities, including ethics and politics. […]  It is a political and ecological critique of sovereignty per se, both natural and political.  The breadth and depth of this critique is why radical ecology is potentially the most radical form of politics, why it offers the most fundamental challenge to the established order of things. (107)

One highlight of the book is that Smith brings together multiple philosophers without ignoring their differences, incompatibilities, and contradictions.  His use of Agamben is a good example: Smith continually draws on Agamben’s concepts and analyses while simultaneously criticizing Agamben’s anthropocentric or “hyperhumanist” tendencies (116).  Another example: Smith offers a critique of Latour that ends up bringing Latour and Levinas together in a productive way.

In short, there are a lot of gems in Smith’s book.  It’s inspired me to look deeper into Arendt’s work, which I haven’t spent much time with in quite a while.  Overall, Against Ecological Sovereignty makes me like radical ecology more than I did before I read it.  Continental philosophy and radical ecology are good for one another.