Tag Archives: Whitehead

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.  Continue reading

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

Multifarious Philosophy

I found the cutting-edge of the creative advance of Whitehead studies.  It’s in the new anthology edited by Jeremy Fackenthal and Roland Faber, Theopoetic Folds: Philosophizing Multifariousness (Fordham, 2013).  It takes its cue from Whitehead’s philosophy, particularly on two points.

First: Multiplicity.
“Philosophy may not neglect the multifariousness of the world—the fairies dance, and Christ is nailed to the cross” (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 338).

Second: Poetics.
Theology is most effective and interesting when it is theopoetics, not only in the sense that poetic speech about God is more accurate than prosaic or formulaic speech, but also in the sense that God is “the poet of the world” (ibid., 336).

This is a must-read book for anybody dealing with Whitehead studies.  Even if you aren’t interested in poetics or radical theology, the book contains a lot of other discussions relevant to metaphysics, cosmology, ecology, and the history of philosophy.  My favorite essays in this collection are in the penultimate section, “The Pluriverse,” which focuses on the cosmological/ecological dimension of Whitehead’s theopoetic philosophy, including pieces from Catherine Keller, Luke Higgins, and Roland Faber.

The piece by Faber presents an “eco-theopoetics” that synthesizes Whitehead and Deleuze in a radical affirmation of wild multiplicity after the “ecological death of God.”  Moreover, “wild” does not refer to any identity or opposition of nature or culture, but is about the necessity of our constitutive contingency in the chaosmos.  Nature and humanity are put back in their place (khora), becoming “eco-nature” and “becoming intermezzo.”

Choreographic Objects

Synthesizing Whitehead and Deleuze, Erin Manning  (Always More than One) explicates William Forsythe’s notion of choreographic objects.

First, it’s important to clarify that choreography isn’t just something that professional dancers do.  “Choreography happens everywhere, all the time.”  Our lives are immersed in “everyday choreographies.” (91)

Choreographic objects can take their departure from any “everyday object: a balloon, a piece of cardboard, a mirror” (92).  The choreographic object opens the question of what else a body can do, a question that calls for experimental movement.  How does the object create open situations for movement experimentation?  “The choreographic object activates experimentation and play by bringing together the pastness of experience (the object as we know it) and its futurity (the object-ecology in its novel unfolding)” (95).

For Manning, choreographic objects are relational, ecological, participatory.

They extend beyond their objectness to become ecologies for complex environments that propose dynamic constellations of space, time, and movement.  These “objects” are in fact propositions co-constituted by the environments they make possible.  They urge participation.  Through the objects, spacetime takes on a resonance, a singularity: it becomes bouncy, it floats, it shadows.  The object becomes a missile for experience that inflects a given spacetime with a spirit of experimentation.  We could call these objects “choreographic objectiles” [in Deleuze’s sense of objectile] to bring to them the sense of incipient movement their dynamic participation within the relational environment calls forth. (92)

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.

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.


(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.