Isabelle Stengers again (updated)
by Adam Robbert
[Addendum: I added an additional paragraph to the quote below which should have been included in the first posting. Also, folks seem to be enjoying the Stengers quotes, so I have added the full pdf from which this quote is taken from for those interested. It is available by clicking the link below, enjoy!]
Stengers always has just the right combination of care, intelligence, and scope. From here essay “Experimenting With Refrains: Subjectivity and the Challenge of Escaping Modern Dualism.“
If, as a philosopher, I am differentiating heavily between theory and philosophical concepts, it is not because I want to defend the highbrow privileges of my field, but because I became a philosopher when I discovered and experienced the power of philosophical concepts to ‘‘force’’ thinking and feeling, and then came to realize that this very power had been hunted down and eliminated, as some kind of witchery, in those countries like the UK, where philosophy has become a model for serious, adult, thinking. I became a philosopher through discovering not only Deleuze but also this forgotten English philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, who was a mathematician, but became, in just a few adventurous years, the most formidable producer of speculative concepts in the 20th century.
It may well be that the stammer-producing experience that turned Whitehead into a philosopher echoes in his recollection of how the industrialization of England proceeded: when ‘‘the workmen were conceived as mere hands, drawn from the pool of labour’’ and when, ‘‘to God’s question, men gave the answer of Cain – ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’’’ (Whitehead, 1925, p. 203). Even if, at his time, the evils of the early industrial system had become, as Whitehead wrote, a ‘‘common place of knowledge’’, the point he himself wanted to insist upon was that those who gave Cain’s answer were not only greedy industrialists but also honourable, even kind-hearted men, devoted to progress – the best men of that time. They probably were those people Whitehead would meet in Cambridge as his colleagues. It may well be that it is at the high table of his college, that is, in the very sanctum of his academic milieu, that he experienced the kind of stammering perplexity we probably all experienced, the feeling that any ‘‘clever’’ discussion would only feed what one is dealing with. Whatever the experience, the refrain for Whitehead became: ‘‘What are our modes of abstraction doing to us? What are they blinding us against?’’
For Whitehead, abstractions as such were never the enemy. We cannot think without abstractions: they cause us to think, they lure our feelings and affects. But our duty is to take care of our abstractions, never to bow down in front of what they are doing to us – especially when they demand that we heroically accept the sacrifices they entail, the insuperable dilemmas and contradictions in which they trap us.