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.

Objects: Between Whitehead and Heidegger

One of the exciting things happening in object-oriented philosophy is a synthesis of Whiteheadian and Heideggerian insights, namely, 1) Whitehead’s pan-experientialist concept of feeling or prehension, which deals a severe blow to human exceptionalism, and 2) Heidegger’s concept of the retreat or withdrawal (Entzug) of things.

It’s a mutually beneficial synthesis: Whitehead helps avoid the anthropocentrism of Heidegger’s philosophy, for which nonhumans are either poor in world or worldless; and Heidegger helps avoid the relationalism of Whitehead’s philosophy, for which individual entities do not harbor any actuality withdrawn from experience.

Heideggerians and Whiteheadians push back.  Heideggerians might argue that Heidegger isn’t entirely anthropocentric (maybe anthropocosmic instead), and Whiteheadians can claim that Whitehead honors the non-relational (i.e., non-experiential) dimension of actuality.  Those claims are not without their merit, as indicated by a recent post by Matt Segall in defense Whitehead’s objects (contra Graham Harman and OOO).  However, at the end of the day, it seems pretty clear to me: Heidegger’s thought is anthropocentric, and Whitehead’s is relationalist.

Regarding Whitehead, it’s important to clarify that he is indeed an object-oriented thinker.  He posits discrete individual entities (actual occasions) as the basic units of existence (see his “ontological principle”).  In this sense, Whitehead is similar to Latour, but he is unlike Bergson and Deleuze, who tend to think of individual entities as products of an underlying continuity.

Is Whitehead object-oriented?  Yes.  Does a Whiteheadian object have a non-relational dimension?  No.  Whitehead’s individuals are experiential through and through, experiencing and experienced, private and public, making actual while decisively cutting away (and negatively prehending, which is a kind of relating).

If there’s a non-relational dimension in Whitehead’s objects, it is the sundering of all relationality that takes place in the creativity of pure becoming, but such a fountain of creativity would amount to a monistic undermining of the plurality of objects.  Even aside from the pluralism/monism problem, a non-relational dimension of objects would be a dimension that is “void of subjective experience,” a “vacuous actuality” that Whitehead denounces (Process and Reality, 167).

I first read Whitehead a little more than 11 years ago (thanks, Pete Gunter!), and I liked his philosophy from the start.  Aside from the specifics of the debate regarding the new Heidegger-Whitehead synthesis, I’m just happy to see that Whitehead’s name is making its way into more and more philosophical discussions.

(Re)Introducing Aristotle, 3: Life After Heidegger and Whitehead

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 somasema, 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.

(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.

Latour’s Bad Words

The vocabulary I have used is very bad and it is meant to be bad: actant, mediation, obligatory passage point, translation, delegation, they have no meaning in themselves and they do no metaphysical work whatsoever.  I never put any sort of explanatory weight on them.  I don’t believe the world is made of mediations, entities, or agencies.  Those words are simply tools deployed to travel from one site to the next.  The whole vocabulary of Actor-Network Theory is a way of moving from one agency to the next.  This is why, in the book I did on the politics of nature, I call what I do “experimental metaphysics.”  Like Whitehead—whom Isabelle Stengers defines as the greatest philosopher of the past century—I believe that to do metaphysics experimentally, one should not define the actors of the world in advance.  It is the job of metaphysicians to monitor the experiment in which the world makes itself.  We need a very poor vocabulary, composed of stupid terms, to function infra-conceptually.  Words like modernity are even more useless since they have no empirical content, they simply dramatize some ideological questions.  See, I find all those terms disgusting as well, but I don’t worry if they are dirty since I put no explanatory weight in them. (p. 18)

Bruno Latour. “Interview with Bruno Latour,” in Chasing Technoscience: Matrix for Materiality, eds. Don Ihde and Evan Selinger, 15-26 (Indiana UP, 2003).