Link Post: 10th International Whitehead Conference

May 25, 2015 § 5 Comments

ermolaev_1_905[Image: Andre Ermolaev]

I’m starting to compile a list of the draft papers and/or abstracts written by folks who are participating in the upcoming Whitehead conference. It’s a short list so far, so if you’re going, or know someone who is, feel free to drop me a line and I’ll add a link to the paper or abstract. I’ll keep updating this post as I come across more contributions. My hope is that this list will give conference goers a little prep time in the lead up to the conference. Reading through the list so far it’s also becoming obvious that, at least among a certain generation, some central themes are emerging.

Here’s what we have so far:

Whitehead’s Non-Modern Philosophy: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse by Matt Segall

Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision by Matt Segall

Whitehead, Eco-Theology, and Planetary Politics by Austin Roberts

Toward an Ecological Civilization: Whitehead and Ecological Democracy by Sam Mickey

Seizing an Alternative: Cosmopolitics and the Big Journey panel presentation by Sam Mickey, Kim Carfore, and Adam Robbert

Appearance in Time: Whitehead and von Uexküll on Aisthēsis In Evolutionary Process by Adam Robbert

Concept and Capacity: The Ecology of Knowledge by Adam Robbert

Appearance in Time

May 21, 2015 § 3 Comments

wave-1[Image: Mario Ceroli]

Here is a draft of the second paper I’ll be giving at the upcoming 10th International Whitehead Conference. I’ve had the opportunity to deliver a version of this paper on three different occasions now, each to a different audience and in a different context, but there’s quite a bit of new material in this version, too. I find it’s really helpful to develop a paper in this way as each time I come back to it I find that my opinion has changed on this or that issue or sometimes that the repetition alone leads me to a better way of expressing the same idea. There’s also an interesting thing that happens when ideas are shared in a public forum. I’m not sure why, but just expressing the work often leads me to finding the gaps or limitations in what I’m not doing, and this seems to work even before receiving any kind of feedback from anyone. I find the same thing happens if I just email a draft of the paper I’m working on to a friend. There’s something about just having your work out there that makes it easier to identify what should happen next.

Appearance in Time:
Whitehead and von Uexküll on Aisthēsis in Evolutionary Process 

Adam Robbert
San Francisco, CA

What is the significance of aisthēsis in the context of evolutionary process? The central claim of my talk is that an ecological understanding of aisthēsis—that is, of the plural modes by which species perceive and engage their surroundings—is necessary for an understanding of evolution at its most fundamental level. In other words, my argument is that we have to understand that which appears as meaningful to organisms if ever we hope to comprehend the history of evolution on Earth.

To support this claim, I draw on the works of Alfred North Whitehead and Jakob von Uexküll to offer an account of aisthēsis in the context of ecological history. Ecology from this view is an ongoing entanglement of values, concerns, and decisions, and it marks the space where the division between matter and meaning breaks down. In short, when we think time and appearance together, aisthēsis becomes that capacity which connects each organism to an ecology of values that ingresses upon evolution in the mode of inherited forms. « Read the rest of this entry »

Concept and Capacity: The Ecology of Knowledge

May 13, 2015 § 5 Comments

tumblr_nn8z5pnb7C1qd0i7oo1_1280Below I am posting a draft of one of two papers I’ll be giving in just a few weeks down in Claremont, CA for the 10th International Whitehead Conference. (See my abstracts here and here.)

In Process and Reality Alfred North Whitehead writes, “a new idea introduces a new alternative; and we are no less indebted to a thinker when we adopt the alternative which he discarded. Philosophy never reverts to its old position after the shock of a new philosopher.”[1] In this paper I ask, what is an idea? How does it introduce a new alternative? How does this new alternative relate to knowledge and experience? My aim is to persuade you that the best way to understand an idea is to describe the ecological relations among thought, action, and perception.

To present my position, I draw on literature from the philosophy mind, particularly enactivism, to propose that knowledge is a skill of engagement. It is an attunement to new contrasts made possible by the coordination of multiple species, practices, and technologies. Similarly, I define conceptualization as a speculative capacity, a performance of the body that leaps the subject beyond immediacy into the spaces of difference afforded by the present. I conclude by suggesting that the ecological view of knowledge has important consequences for the politics and ethics of first-person experience. « Read the rest of this entry »

Appearance in Time: Whitehead and von Uexküll on Aisthēsis in Evolutionary Process

April 7, 2015 § 13 Comments

tumblr_md92r6MwUf1qzngato1_1280[Image: Kohei Nawa]

Below is the second of my two abstract for this year’s Whitehead conference in Claremont.

Track: Journey of the Universe and Inclusive History as A Context of Meaning

Title: Appearance in Time: Whitehead and von Uexküll on Aisthēsis in Evolutionary Process

Author: Adam Robbert

Abstract: What is the significance of aisthēsis in the context of evolutionary process? The central claim of my talk is that an ecological understanding of aisthēsis—that is, of the plural modes by which species perceive and engage their surroundings—is necessary for an understanding of evolution at its most fundamental level. In other words, my argument is that we have to understand that which appears as meaningful to organisms if ever we hope to comprehend the history of evolution on Earth. To support this claim, I draw on the works of Alfred North Whitehead and Jakob von Uexküll to offer a non-anthropocentric and aesthetic account of meaning in the context of ecological history. Ecology from this view is an ongoing entanglement of values, concerns, and decisions, and it marks the space where the division between matter and meaning breaks down. Further, beyond suggesting the importance of aisthēsis for all species, I conclude by noting, following Whitehead, that aisthēsis connects each organism with a field of action, a semantic topography that ingresses upon the evolution of species in the mode of inherited forms. This ingression demonstrates that, while the real cannot be reduced to appearance, it is nevertheless shaped in part by the exchange of appearances coalesced in evolutionary process.

Concept and Capacity: The Ecology of Knowledge

April 3, 2015 § 3 Comments

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Below I’m posting my first of two abstracts for papers I’m giving at the 10th International Whitehead Conference. I’m re-working some familiar themes here, but, as they say, repetition is the best teacher. Will you, dear readers, also be in attendance at Claremont this July? Drop me a line via email or in the comments and let’s coordinate.

Track: Re-Imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism

Title: Concept and Capacity: The Ecology of Knowledge

Author: Adam Robbert

Abstract: In Process and Reality Alfred North Whitehead writes, “a new idea introduces a new alternative; and we are no less indebted to a thinker when we adopt the alternative which he discarded. Philosophy never reverts to its old position after the shock of a new philosopher.” In this paper I ask, what is an idea? How does it introduce a new alternative? How does this new alternative relate to human knowledge and experience? I argue that the best way to understand human experience, now or in history, is by demonstrating the ecological basis of all human thought, action, and perception. To understand how knowledge and ideas participate in human action, I draw on literature from the philosophy mind, particularly enactivism, to propose that knowledge is a skill of perception waiting to be acquired. It is an attunement to new aesthetic contrasts made possible by the coordination of multiple species, practices, and technologies. Similarly, I define conceptualization as a speculative capacity, a performance of the body that leaps the subject beyond immediacy into the spaces of possibility afforded by the present. Stated differently, knowledge represents the acquisition of a conceptual faculty, an ability to mediate difference and contrast in the environment in a meaningful way. I conclude by suggesting that the organism is that place in the universe where material nature is transformed into conceptual nature, where matter becomes concept in the mode of embodied awareness.

Time and Events

March 24, 2015 § 6 Comments

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[Image: Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji]

I just came across Massimo Pigliucci’s interesting review of Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin’s book The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. There are more than a few Whiteheadian themes explored throughout the review, including Unger and Smolin’s (U&S) view that time should be read as an abstraction from events and that the “laws” of the universe are better conceptualized as habits or contingent causal connections secured by the ongoingness of those events rather than as eternal, abstract formalisms. (This entangling of laws with phenomena, of events with time, is one of the ways we can think towards an ecological metaphysics.)

But what I am particularly interested in is the short discussion on Platonism and mathematical realism. I sometimes think of mathematical realism as the view that numbers, and thus the abstract formalisms they create, are real, mind-independent entities, and that, given this view, mathematical equations are discovered (i.e., they actually exist in the world) rather than created (i.e., humans made them up to fill this or that pragmatic need). The review makes it clear, though, that this definition doesn’t push things far enough for the mathematical realist. Instead, the mathematical realist argues for not just the mind-independent existence of numbers but also their nature-independence—math as independent not just of all knowers but of all natural phenomena, past, present, or future.

U&S present an alternative to mathematical realisms of this variety that I find compelling and more consistent with the view that laws are habits and that time is an abstraction from events. Here’s the reviewer’s take on U&S’s argument (the review starts with a quote from U&S and then unpacks it a bit):

“The third idea is the selective realism of mathematics. (We use realism here in the sense of relation to the one real natural world, in opposition to what is often described as mathematical Platonism: a belief in the real existence, apart from nature, of mathematical entities.) Now dominant conceptions of what the most basic natural science is and can become have been formed in the context of beliefs about mathematics and of its relation to both science and nature. The laws of nature, the discerning of which has been the supreme object of science, are supposed to be written in the language of mathematics.” (p. xii)

But they are not, because there are no “laws” and because mathematics is a human (very useful) invention, not a mysterious sixth sense capable of probing a deeper reality beyond the empirical. This needs some unpacking, of course. Let me start with mathematics, then move to the issue of natural laws.

I was myself, until recently, intrigued by mathematical Platonism [8]. It is a compelling idea, which makes sense of the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” as Eugene Wigner famously put it [9]. It is a position shared by a good number of mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics. It is based on the strong gut feeling that mathematicians have that they don’t invent mathematical formalisms, they “discover” them, in a way analogous to what empirical scientists do with features of the outside world. It is also supported by an argument analogous to the defense of realism about scientific theories and advanced by Hilary Putnam: it would be nothing short of miraculous, it is suggested, if mathematics were the arbitrary creation of the human mind, and yet time and again it turns out to be spectacularly helpful to scientists [10].

But there are, of course, equally (more?) powerful counterarguments, which are in part discussed by Unger in the first part of the book. To begin with, the whole thing smells a bit too uncomfortably of mysticism: where, exactly, is this realm of mathematical objects? What is its ontological status? Moreover, and relatedly, how is it that human beings have somehow developed the uncanny ability to access such realm? We know how we can access, however imperfectly and indirectly, the physical world: we evolved a battery of sensorial capabilities to navigate that world in order to survive and reproduce, and science has been a continuous quest for expanding the power of our senses by way of more and more sophisticated instrumentation, to gain access to more and more (and increasingly less relevant to our biological fitness!) aspects of the world.

Indeed, it is precisely this analogy with science that powerfully hints to an alternative, naturalistic interpretation of the (un)reasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Math too started out as a way to do useful things in the world, mostly to count (arithmetics) and to measure up the world and divide it into manageable chunks (geometry). Mathematicians then developed their own (conceptual, as opposed to empirical) tools to understand more and more sophisticated and less immediate aspects of the world, in the process eventually abstracting entirely from such a world in pursuit of internally generated questions (what we today call “pure” mathematics).

U&S do not by any means deny the power and effectiveness of mathematics. But they also remind us that precisely what makes it so useful and general — its abstraction from the particularities of the world, and specifically its inability to deal with temporal asymmetries (mathematical equations in fundamental physics are time-symmetric, and asymmetries have to be imported as externally imposed background conditions) — also makes it subordinate to empirical science when it comes to understanding the one real world.

This empiricist reading of mathematics offers a refreshing respite to the resurgence of a certain Idealism in some continental circles (perhaps most interestingly spearheaded by Quentin Meillassoux). I’ve heard mention a few times now that the various factions squaring off within continental philosophy’s avant garde can be roughly approximated as a renewed encounter between Kantian finitude and Hegelian absolutism. It’s probably a bit too stark of a binary, but there’s a sense in which the stakes of these arguments really do center on the ontological status of mathematics in the natural world. It’s not a direct focus of my own research interests, really, but it’s a fascinating set of questions nonetheless.

Multispecies Epistemes

March 23, 2015 § 7 Comments

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The epistemic import of camouflage vis-a-vis notions of realism is an under researched area of inquiry.CAqkfZBUUAAZIiw

Camouflaged critters bring to mind not just the intersubjective character of perception but also its interspecies reality.CAqj0PwVIAED_34

Different organisms hide not just from us humans but also from a wide variety of other species, playing on appearances.CAqjRDIUYAAEXpn

This means that we humans encounter phenomena in terms of specific perceptual capacities, but not in a way entirely alien to other species.
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The point is not to efface differences across species but to explore multispecies entanglements in perception.CAqlAs8UYAAX4z_

Because the aesthetic play of appearances can be life or death in multispecies epistemes.  Crocodile-fish_1594835i

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