An Argument for the Ecology of Knowledge: Aesthetics and Causality
by Adam Robbert
Michael at Archive Fire responds to my previous post HERE. Our ongoing dialogue has now moved beyond the ontological issue of withdrawal in object-oriented philosophies and onto distinguishing between different types of relations (causal and epistemic) and how these distinctions might impact our reasoning about ontology. These exchanges are practically becoming a regularly scheduled part of the program over on this little corner of the web and I’m quite enjoying them. Below is my response that includes some of my arguments regarding the ecology of knowledge.
Michael starts off with some inaccurate assumptions about Whitehead, which I shall have to correct in order to better highlight my position. I don’t hold Michael’s one-sided treatment of Whitehead against him since Michael openly admits to not having read much of Whitehead’s work. Certainly there is nothing wrong with that, its not necessary for both of us to have read all of the same material for us to have a fruitful discussion, but it does mean that I shall have to backtrack a little bit again and articulate further Whitehead’s position since I find it so philosophically compelling and supportive of my own. I place the blame on myself for not being as clear as was necessary in our earlier discussions, and hopefully this round can increase our mutual clarity. To be sure, my incessant appeal to Whitehead should not be read as an attempt to hitch my cart to the horse of Whitehead’s process philosophy (I have a number of disagreements with Whitehead) but his work is such a clear influence on my own that it would it be strange not to cite him as an inspiration. Here it goes.
First off, Michael is concerned that Whitehead is not empirical enough. Michael writes, “Although I am not as familiar as I would like to be with Whitehead’s ontology, I see no compelling reason why we should graft a speculative ontology on to what can be easily described through empirical investigation of the materials and dynamics involved.” This is a great criticism, but doesn’t necessarily apply to Whitehead. Whitehead’s metaphysics is based on two general tensions we find manifesting in different ways all throughout his work. Some of the common tensions include: speculation and empiricism; contingency and mathematics; reason and experience; or cosmology and philosophy. Whitehead doesn’t privilege one category over the other but rather suggests that speculation and empiricism are both equally necessary. Here Whitehead uses the metaphor of the aeroplane which takes flight (always from a specific set of contingent circumstances) into the speculative imagination, and then lands (again into a specific set of contingent circumstances). The goal of speculative philosophy is thus this ongoing process of taking off and landing where speculation involves taking the risk of an imaginative wager and building a cosmology, while philosophy involves the ongoing task of criticizing the blind spots that any cosmology will necessarily generate.
The term “Speculative Philosophy” thus seeks to embody the tension of lived, contingent experience, with the reality that there is a concrete world buzzing with activity outside of our own body’s particular field of awareness. Here speculative philosophy embodies many of the same tensions as the now-fashionable term “Speculative Realism.” Of course Whitehead’s success in balancing speculation and philosophy is something anyone is free to challenge. In my own opinion his philosophy is more than adequate in an empirical sense recognized by the sciences, but definitely falls short of being a rigorous empiricism in the sense of situating his own body within the power dynamics of history, culture, class etc. (though to Whitehead’s credit he does argue against all kinds of pernicious scientific theories regarding biological and genetic reductionism already in the 1920/30s – and I think this is a rather good testament to his critical thinking skills). Thus I think we can say that Whitehead is empirically adequate in a gross sense regarding the insights of the physical sciences, but empirically lacking in the socio-historical sense recognized by critical theorists. Regardless, the point is that there is plenty of empirical methodology happening throughout Whitehead’s work so our criticisms are better directed elsewhere.
But lets address a little more theory vis-à-vis Michael’s arguments. The tension between speculation and philosophy that Whitehead seeks to enact is more than a methodological approach, its also mirrored in his ontology. Actual occasions, for instance, collapse the distinction between (for example) primary and secondary qualities; causation and perception; or quantitative and qualitative dimensions. Whitehead offers that actual occasions are complexly mental-physical, where “mental” refers to general state of prehension rather a fully generalized state of apprehension (the latter referring only to entities with cognitive abilities). I have suggested earlier that we might call Whitehead’s ontology “panexperiential” but we could just as well call it “pansemiotic.” Pansemiosis refers to the position that all entities—to whatever limited degree—are sign interpreters even if only at the level of basic physical or chemical reactions. Here signs and causality are inextricably intertwined all of the way down. [Side note 1: I find great sympathy here with Tim Morton’s position on causality and aesthetics—its very similar to what I am trying to argue in that the causal and aesthetic seem to be one and the same. This has important consequences for thinking about both epistemology and ecology.]
Take the example of the ecosystem form instance. While it is true that epistemic processes are interactive features of an ecosystem, it is simply not true that these processes emerge only with the human, or even with the “higher animals.” In this sense ecosystems are semiotic (i.e., interpretive) all of the way down. We can call this approach to ecosystems “ecosemiotics” or “biosemiotics.” If you are interested in reading about the former I suggest looking at Alf Hornborg’s work The Power of the Machine if you are interested in the latter, any of Jesper Hoffmeyer’s research will help immensely. The point here is that epistemic relations are not simply emergent properties of complex chemical and molecular reactions. Rather, epistemic relations (which I take as synonymous with semiotic relations) are constitutive features of ecosystems as such. The ecosemiotic view in this way transforms the split between causal relations and epistemic relations, throwing the two into and ontological blender that requires a fundamental rethinking of cosmology and ecology. In other words, at no point in either chemical or biological processes is there any such thing as “just” causal relations—these relations are simultaneously causally interactive and semiotically interpretive. Knowledge ecologies thus predate human actors (and whatever complex mammals you want to throw on the list) by billions of years. Its our job as humans to align human knowledge with the other ecologies of knowledge, rather than the other way around.
We might also note here that the framework I am proposing is entirely consistent with the enactivist paradigm within which even single cells engage in basic modes of semiotic relationship with their environment. It is the autopoietic closure of a cell that creates not just a physical membrane, but an interpretive membrane that puts the cell into a dynamic relationship with its ecology. So, does that mean that humans and cells are exactly the same in their semiotic structure and capacity? Of course not! Here Whitehead is of some further assistance. Whitehead suggests that “societies” (enduring groups of actual occasions) can be distinguished by grades of intensity so that a higher-grade society (like a Human or a baleen whale) has all kinds of different capacities (e.g., symbol making, cognitive apprehension, self-reflection, or imagination) than more basic societies. For these reasons I continue to think that human epistemic activities are different in degree and not in kind from any act of interpretation whatsoever. [Side note 2: Graham Harman has also suggested that a “speculative psychology” might be helpful to sort out some of these issues, I believe in Guerilla Metaphysics].
A few concluding statements then. Whitehead’s philosophy and my own arguments for the ecology of knowledge are at the end of the day, I think, fully consistent with any empirical arguments that can be drawn from the sciences of physics, chemistry, or biology (or at the very least they do not require a break from established scientific truths—this is also a criteria I have learned to respect and appreciate from Whitehead’s work). In short, I maintain that the human processes of imagination and cognition are kin to other cosmological processes such as the emergence and evolution of ecosystems or the spinning of spiral-armed galaxies. Its all cosmos to me folks; but don’t get me wrong, you won’t find me conceding my position to the so-called scientific reductionists (whoever these mystery-men might be…). The cosmos is richly experiential far outside the boundaries of the human skull so much so that I maintain that experience is a constitutive feature of relations in general; that these relations are ecological in nature; and that, while the human may be the place where the cosmos begins to recognize these qualities in itself, the human is not the place where experience gets to be cordoned off into the ghetto of anthropocentric fantasies. Its ecologies of experience all the down as far as I can tell.