Whitehead Symposium in Finland
by Adam Robbert
Full details are HERE. I have copied the speakers and their descriptions below, which include such notables as Steven Shaviro and Isabelle Stengers. I’m very sorry to miss this — if anyone happens to read this blog and attends the conference I would love to hear how things go.
A Speculative Approach to Subjectivities
During the past few years a great number of attempts have been made to reinstate speculative philosophy. Although these attempts differ greatly among one another, they do have one question in common: is it possible to have an experience of nature that does not follow, exclusively, the lines of a human perspective? The question I would like to ask here concerns the place of the subject in speculative thought: What should we expect from the association of two terms (subject and speculative philosophy) that have crystallized tendencies this diametrically different in contemporary philosophy: on the one hand a project in philosophical anthropology that will consider nature based on its impact on a human subject that actually experiences it, and on the other hand a philosophy of nature that will infer nature’s characteristics without referring directly to an anthropological subject.
Loose coexistence, thick present, fibered time
When it comes to making sense of the whole of experience, empiricism is always confronted with a dilemma: it must account for the fact that nothing is by essence radically subtracted from the plane of experience, or cut from the extensive becoming of nature, while allowing for every possible degree of disjunction or disconnectedness within togetherness. This difficulty reflects a more general tension between monism and pluralism, solidarity and locality; it is still apparent in Whitehead’s particular brand of empiricism. And naturally, it cannot be resolved by resorting to a universal scheme of togetherness. For as William James put it: “Things are ‘with’ one another in many ways, but nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything.” In other words: not only do things coexist in many ways, but coexistence itself is irremediably plural. From that perspective, and as far as the metaphysical issue of totality is concerned, spacetime (relativistic or otherwise) is nothing more than a toy-model enabling us to review a diversity of regimes of coexistence. Whitehead’s own concept of coexistence is rather multifarious: it ranges from simultaneity in the mode of presentational immediacy to contemporaneity understood as causal independence, through the concepts of cogredience and co-presence… Our purpose is to show that a consistent grammar of coexistence can be extracted from these various attempts at spelling out the modes of togetherness within the “advance of nature.” We shall see that, if combined with Whitehead’s theory of the “nexus” of occasions, and if further supplemented by recent explorations of “non-standard” models of simultaneity in the philosophy of spacetime, it can yield far-reaching insights in the “loose” character of coexistence (which Bergson somehow failed to articulate properly), while suggesting new ways of tackling some of the most enduring problems of metaphysics (such as the riddle of persistence over time).
The Social Life of Propositions
The notion of “societies” and the “social” play an important role in the work of Whitehead. For him, these terms do not refer simply to the human realm; rather, sociality is a characteristic of all enduring things. In this paper, I will briefly introduce the status of these concepts within Whitehead and then will move on to a fuller discussion of that which is usually considered to be the “human realm”. I will suggest that it his discussions of “Propositions” within his major work Process and Reality that most fully expounds his position regarding this question. I will argue that Whitehead partly chose the term “Propositions” precisely because it chimed with already existing discussions within analytic philosophy in the early 20th century but also in order to challenge and develop such understandings. Propositions, for Whitehead, express what he terms the “theoretical” character in which the world pro-poses itself to us. They are, therefore, integral to his development of a philosophy which incorporates process as integral to all existence and which, at the human level, is exhibited by the concretely theoretical character of Propositions. It is in these terms that an important aspect of Whitehead’s concept of life can also be approached.
The Nonliving within Life:
On the Problem of Life Itself
Today, after having been soiled – both legitimately and illegitimately – for more than half a century, life-philosophies are back, now in the guise of Deleuzianism(s), New Vitalism and various other philosophies of becoming. To these approaches, the vibrancy of life offers a broad conceptual frame within which a whole variety of phenomena from labour and capitalism to information, film, computer viruses and even matter are perceived. The talk aspires to contribute to these discussions by tapping into the problem of life itself. The importance of such an undertaking becomes perceptible for instance against the pervasive bio-political techniques of governing and the related debates on ‘bare life’. At the same, however, it is evident that any speculation about life is bound to meet the challenges posited by reductionism (both scientific and philosophical) as well as the celebration of general becoming. The talk suggests that the importance of such thinkers as Georg Simmel and A. N. Whitehead for the thinking of life lies in that they avoid both of these pitfalls. They develop a philosophy of ‘real’ life that not only places humans on a par with all living organisms, but also accounts for both being and becoming, facticity and flux. By drawing upon their insights, the talk realigns the concept of life in relation to that of ‘boundary’. This is to place the nonliving within life: while being opposed to it, life needs the nonliving in order to become what it is, and is shaped and conditioned by it in each and every moment.
Whitehead on Occasions and Societies
The great aim of Whitehead’s major philosophy — from he Concept of Nature (1920) onwards — is to oppose what he calls “the bifurcation of nature.” This is the great division, in modern Western thought, between primary and secondary qualities, or between what is said to be objectively “out there” in the physical world, and what is said to be merely subjective, a projection of the human mind. Whitehead refuses any such division: “We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much a part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon” (CN 29). Scientific reductionists would say that the sunset “really” consists in photons diffracted through the earth’s atmosphere, and that the phenomenal “red glow of the sunset” is merely an illusion of “folk psychology.” Phenomenologists, on the contrary, would affirm that red glow, while bracketing out its explanation in terms of photons. But Whitehead demands that we take both of these dimensions with equal seriousness. There is one world, and photons and subjective experiences are equally parts of it. “The actual elements perceived by our senses are in themselves the elements of a common world… this world is a complex of things, including indeed our acts of cognition, but transcending them” (SMW 88). Even supposedly subjective “secondary qualities” must be included within this common world.
However, despite his rejection of the “bifurcation of nature,” Whitehead nevertheless proposes an ontology in which there are two levels of being. Actual occasions are “the completely real things” of which the world is ultimately composed. But Whitehead says that we never encounter or apprehend naked actual occasions. Rather, anything and everything that we encounter in the course of our experience is what Whitehead calls a society, a complex of occasions that “exhibit(s) the peculiar quality of endurance. The real actual things that endure are all societies” (AI 204). Why does Whitehead make this basic distinction between occasions (which are atomistically limited both in time and space) and societies (which occupy space and endure through time)? What is the difference between “completely real things” and “real actual things”? How does Whitehead avoid imposing a new bifurcation, when he radically distinguishes between ultimate entities, on the one hand, and objects that we are able to experience, on the other? And what conclusions can we draw from Whitehead’s account of societies as enduring objects? These are the questions that I will seek to answer in my essay.
Life, Whitehead wrote in Process and Reality, “lurks in the interstices of each living cell, and in the interstices of the brain”. This proposition belongs to the speculative approach as it associates what biologists approach as “living beings” and what concern us all: human experience, awareness, consciousness, judgement. It will be contrasted with the (non-speculative) concept of the organism, which was meant to provide a renewed understanding of the order of nature. The speculative concept of life is an application of the speculative scheme, which Whitehead defined as a matrix the very meaning of which is the derivation of such applications. But it will be argued that this concept of life also provides a justification for the Whiteheadian reinvention of speculative philosophy itself. In other words, the theme of the “lurking Life” exemplifies Whitehead’s demand for coherence, the demand that “the fundamental ideas, in terms of which the scheme is developed, presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless”. It leads us to include among these fundamental ideas the aim of philosophy, as Whitehead defined it, that is, “sheer disclosure”. And it also leads us to verify the way Whitehead situated himself, as the one who comes after William James. Speculative philosophy is not about a speculative “vision of the world”. Its truth is, as William James claimed, is in its effects.