Whitehead and Ecology Excerpt 4: Whitehead’s Cosmology
by Adam Robbert
Following my series of excerpts from the larger work I am putting to together, I am posting a section on Whitehead’s cosmology since numerous questions about Whitehead continue to pop up in conversation. The following shouldn’t be construed as a complete account of Whitehead’s cosmology but rather connects Whitehead to ecology specifically. This post follows and expands on part 1, part 2, and part 3:
Re-visioning Ecology in the context of this integral, three-fold ecology requires further consideration of Whitehead’s cosmology. In the post Kantian landscape of 20th century philosophy, Whitehead, a mathematician by training, is perhaps one of the few philosophers—in either Continental or Anglo-American traditions—that took the practice of speculative philosophy seriously. In this regard, he is joined only by William James and Charles Sanders Pierce (Meyers, 2001) in articulating not just a “philosophy of human access” to the world, but a speculative wager, a “risk” in Isabelle Stengers’s (2010) sense of the word, on what the cosmological character of the world is, with or without a human observer present to experience it. However, where “James describes emotions as a particular sort of experience” we find that “Whitehead radicalizes this argument, and expands its scope, by describing all experience as emotional” (Shaviro, 2009, p. 59) so that, ultimately, “Everything that happens in the universe is thus in some sense an episode of feeling” (ibid). In this way, Whitehead’s cosmology is rooted in aesthetics rather than ontology such that, “This emphasis on feeling leads, in turn, to a new account of affect-laden subjectivity. Most broadly, Whitehead’s affect theory places aesthetics—rather than ontology (Heidegger) or ethics (Levinas)—at the center of philosophical inquiry” (ibid., p. 47).
Whitehead, like James, saw experience as the fundamental molecule of the cosmos. We might even call Whitehead’s philosophy a kind of radical empiricism insofar as his cosmology articulates a vision that puts experience at the center of his philosophical project (Shaviro, 2009, p. 66). Here we might note Steven Shaviro’s commentary on Whitehead and Kant. Where Kant generated an epochal shift in philosophy (his “Copernican revolution”) towards philosophies of human access (i.e., to epistemology) over and against a study of the world’s own character (i.e., away from ontology), Whitehead can be seen as radicalizing this Kantian move by pushing it towards its logical conclusions. Whitehead turns Kant on his head (or puts him back on his feet, depending on how you interpret it) by locating experience within ontology rather than only in human epistemology. Thus we might say “For Whitehead, there is no ontological difference between what we generally call physical objects and what we generally call mental or subjective acts” (Shaviro, 2009, p. 21).
Kant understood that the “world” within which humans lived is a partially co-constructed world, shaped to some significant degree by the human mind itself. Kant had outlined the conditions for the possibility of human experience, and thereby demonstrated that the world we experience is not the world “in-itself” but is only the world “for us.” But this realization was limited for Kant to the human-world correlation, and was not treated as a property existing between relations in general. On Whitehead’s push towards a radicalized Kant, Shaviro writes:
Taken in [Whitehead’s] expanded sense, Kant’s Copernican revolution no longer puts human subjectivity at the center of everything. Rather—in better accord with the actual achievement of Copernicus—it decenters that subject. For subjectivity, in the first place, is not an exclusively human privilege. In the second place, it is a manner or formal principle, rather than anything substantial. And finally, subjectivity is decentered because it is itself subject to the very phenomenon that it produces: the inner passage of time (2009, p. 77).
In effect, “Whitehead radicalizes Kant by extending the scope of his ‘subjectivist’ arguments: they now apply, not just to human or rational beings, but to all entities in the universe” (Shaviro, 2009, pp. 88 – 89). This move leads to a simple statement by which we can summarize Whitehead’s philosophy: to be, is to be an experience. In fact, another word for the actual occasion is “drop of experience” each of which is “complex and interdependent” (1978, p. 18). These drops of experiences are what everything from stellar nebulas to Van Gogh paintings are made of. Thus, for Whitehead, we see no difference, ontologically, between the being of my thought as it grapples with the beauty of the sun’s crepuscular rays, and the being of my body’s skin when being burnt by the very same sun.
In placing all occasions on the same plane of activity, Whitehead overcomes what he calls the “bifurcation of nature” through which the real is demarcated into separate categories (“causal” and “apparent” nature), the former possessing a greater intensity of reality than the other (Whitehead, 2010, p. 38). Through Whitehead, we find not two ontological worlds—one composed of human souls, gods, and culture and the other composed of mechanically interacting minerals, plants, and animals—but rather one ontological plane of interactivity, within which humans are an expression of an ongoing, primordially unfolding state of experience. Whitehead’s resistance to the bifurcation of nature is well captured in the following lucid passage:
In fact, the world beyond is so intimately entwined in our own natures that unconsciously we identify our more vivid perspectives of it with ourselves. For example, our bodies lie beyond our own individual existence. And yet they are part of it. We think of ourselves as so intimately entwined in bodily life that a man is a complex unity – body and mind. But the body is part of the external world, continuous with it. In fact, it is just as much part of nature as anything else – a river, or a mountain, or a cloud. Also, if we are fussily exact, we cannot define where a body begins and where external nature ends (1968, p. 21).
In this sense Whitehead’s actual occasion, thought with the three ecologies dispatched in this paper, attempt to carry forward a project initiated by Bruno Latour in his magnificent work We Have Never Been Modern (1993). Much like Latour sought to question the distinction between nature and culture—itself a move to overcome the bifurcation of nature—I now move to question the distinction between organism and environment. Not because organisms aren’t real, or because environments are simply idealist fabrications, but rather because ecology demands of us a rigorous understanding of the multi-directional and promiscuously unfolding nature of the ecological world we inhabit, a task not readily served by the organism-environment distinction. I am inspired here by what Tim Morton calls the ecological thought,
The ecological thought is the thinking of interconnectedness. The ecological thought is a thought about ecology, but it is also a thinking that is ecological. The ecological thought doesn’t just occur “in the mind.” It’s a practice and a process of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings—animal, vegetable, or mineral. Ultimately, this includes thinking about democracy. What would a truly democratic between truly equal beings look like, what would it be—can we even imagine it? (2010, p. 7)
I take Morton’s assertion that the ecological thought is a thought about ecology but also a thinking that is ecological quite literally—ecology is not just about organisms juxtaposed to environments, its about the episodic encounters between actual occasions driving an evolutionary process that has been in play since before the organism/environment distinction could be made. In this sense, we are pointing towards what we might call a “democracy” of occasions interacting on a vast and diverse cosmological plane.
Though perhaps an unorthodox utilization of the word “democracy” it is one that nevertheless echoes Whitehead’s own comments, where he writes “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (1978, p.50), a commentary echoed later by Bruno Latour who, when considering what such a democratic ontology might look like in practice, asks “Will a different democracy become necessary? A democracy extended to things?” (1993, p. 12). Whitehead helps to accomplish the task of generating an expanded sense of democracy by (a) placing experience at the center of being, giving each actual entity its own undetermined action in the course of the universe, (b) by putting humans into reciprical exchange with the multitude of other beings in the cosmos, and (c) by putting those beings in relation to one another. To quote Whitehead’s own words, “every actual entity, in virtue of its novelty, transcends its universe…” (1978, pp. 93-94) and thus emits its own democratic participation in the cosmos as an entity not fully determined, but in contingent relation to other entities.
In effect, Whitehead’s cosmology (and the three ecologies I am building here) finds no sympathy with a human exceptionalism built on the premise that humanity alone exists outside of the interdependent mesh of cosmological activity, and instead moves the human into a democratic ontology, an ecological cosmology. Such a cosmology affirms interconnectivity, but it also affirms separateness and difference, “interconnection” in fact, “implies separateness and difference” (Morton, 2010, p. 47). Thus we find these three notions—democracy, cosmology, and ecology—linked in deep ways that pose themselves as unanswered questions, as interrogative ontologies that dare to ask, “can we think cosmos, socius, and oikos at the same time?” It is in response to this question that a formulation of the three ecologies emerges; upon a plane that is at once material, social, and noetic. Isabelle Stengers (2011) has come up with her own response to this question, she calls it simply “cosmopolitics,” a concept we shall return to in the conclusion of this paper.
With this brief overview of Whitehead’s philosophy, we can return to our central question of ecology. As I noted before, my first move to rethink ecology was to recast the organism-environment distinction. With Whitehead’s thinking now in the background, we can look again upon the entangled banks of the ecosystem and begin to see that whether we are referring to the passage of electrons, the chemical transference of nitrogen, or the grazing patterns of gazelle on the savannah, we are in fact only ever encountering different actualities—centers of experience—interacting with one another in different modes of complexity and intensity. By breaking down the distinction between organism and environment in favor of the actual occasion, one is also committed to a re-thinking of the ontological imagination which underpins the organism-environment binary. I suggest we approach this re-thinking by way of the three ecologies, which we can now more richly consider before making some concluding remarks.
 cf. The Speculative Turn (2010)
 Shaviro’s discussion of the relationship Kant’s and Whitehead’s notions of temporality vis-à-vis actual entities is beyond the scope of this essay, but worth exploring. An extended discussion of this can be found in Shaviro’s analysis of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason where he in part writes: “This means that Kant fails to push his Copernican revolution far enough. For if the phenomenal world is entirely temporal, and entirely a world of experience, then we should no longer say that it is “merely experienced” by a subject that remains outside it. Rather, the phenomenal world consists in the subjective experiences of all the entities that make it up. If “transition” is indeed universal, then duration, or primordial temporality, is the inner dimension of all entities in the universe—and not just human subjects (2009, p . 77).
 We should note here that the homology between thoughts and bodies is not because Whitehead reduces thought to a privileged location in the brain, but because every actual entity is “dipolar” having both a “physical” and “mental” pole, related to two modes of causality and perception (which are linked for Whitehead) he refers to as “causal efficacy” and “presentational immediacy” (Whitehead, 1978).
 This bifurcation, most predominately finding its genesis in the philosophy of Rene Descartes who posits, as many know, two domains: res extensa and res cogitas. We don’t need to join the multitudinous ranks of anti-dualists here, but suffice to say that Whitehead’s solution to the problem of metaphysical dualism presented by Descartes (which repeats itself in the arenas of the nature/culture and mind/body debates), is to revision the ontology which underpins the dualism to begin with.
 By thinking ecology we are thus attempting to escape the inertia of what Whitehead calls the three extremes: “There are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on an equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century” (1997, p. 55).
 The project of enacting a democratic ontology is carried forward most recently in Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects (forthcoming).