The Rubicon Has Been Crossed
by Adam Robbert
There is a curious moment in Modes of Thought (1968) where Whitehead writes, “The distinction between men and animals is in one sense only a difference in degree. But the extent of the degree makes all of the difference. The Rubicon has been crossed” (p. 27). The question that always strikes me when reading this passage concerns exactly what worlds the “Rubicon” is connecting. Where — or amidst what — were beings situated before the Rubicon was crossed? What kind of ecology are humans situated amidst after having crossed the Rubicon? What is the Rubicon itself made from — what kind of structure does it have? Where did it come from?
These are all questions I ask in the spirit of reaching better questions. And if we’re serious about pursuing these questions in the Whiteheadian mode we are constrained in the kinds of answers we can give. First, the difference of the being who has “crossed the Rubicon” ought to be one of degree rather than kind. In other words, we are attempting to understand what crossing the Rubicon means without bifurcating nature — of creating a split between the being that attempts to know nature and the nature which is attempted to be known — and this involves addressing some further problems.
The primary issue emerges right away since “crossing the Rubicon” seems to imply that something significant has happened with the human (even if whatever that something is turns out not to be unique to humans after all). The phrase “crossing the Rubicon” itself invokes the likelihood of something like the Cartesian Cogito, Kant’s transcendental subjectivity and the synthetic unity of apperception, or the Heideggerian Dasein. But what is clear from Whitehead’s critique of the bifurcation of nature is that each of these three options is not really what we are looking for since the Cogito, Transcendental Subject, and Dasein, all posit a rift unique to the human-world relation, and Whitehead will have none of it.
The critique of the bifurcation of nature, in my reading, is primarily a critique of the split between primary and secondary qualities, and subsequently a critique of the human world-dualism exhibited by much of philosophy and science since the enlightenment (a dualism Whitehead notes mostly came to an end after Darwin and the post-Newtonian physics of the early twentieth century cf. the introduction to Process and Reality). To be sure, there are moments where Whitehead does address Descartes, to a less frequent extent Kant, and never to my knowledge Heidegger. Instead, Whitehead’s main targets are more frequently the British Empiricists, and in particular John Locke.
Whitehead’s reformulation of Lockean empiricism leads to a positive account of what Whitehead calls “prehension,” a general metaphysical principle that reformulates notions of aesthetics, causality, and perception. It is through prehension that Whitehead sees the human as “a difference only in degree” from other living beings. With prehension, Whitehead posits that feeling — or affectivity, we might say today — is active in all casual relations. Thus the human experience of the world is of a more complex nature than other beings, but is structurally similar to all other beings as well. What is not clear from Whitehead is whether or not we get a positive description of what the human is after the Rubicon has been crossed. And this still leaves the question unanswered: What is the Rubicon? What does it connect? Where does it take us?
A tentative answer may be that the Kantian thing-in-itself does not emerge as a result of the transcendental subjectivity of the human alone, but is in fact a property of things in general (as some of the object-oriented philosophers would have it). In Whitehead I don’t think we find things-in-themselves — either as exclusive aporias that emerge within the structure of the human being or otherwise — and instead tend to think that what things are, for Whitehead, have everything to do with their relationship to other things (even if never fully determined by those other things). The question of what a things is is a crucial one since understanding what things are seems to have everything to do with what the Rubicon is and what the strange worlds it connects are.
I would venture to suggest that the Rubicon is the link between the (always mediated) experience of the empirical world of some-being(s) and the immanent character of the human capacities we call reason, imagination, and creativity; all of which seem to be related in significant ways to the human capacity to take up time as a datum within experience in a way that’s not readily available to all beings. Certainly reason, imagination, and creativity, have been suggested as the unique powers possessed by the human before (of course Whitehead and Heidegger are both very concerned with the relationship between time and being), but my own interest in what the Rubicon is concerns giving a positive account of how the human mode of these capacities emerges within the context of a cosmos that is always already qualitative and affective by virtue of the aesthetic structure of causality. For me these are important political questions.
In other words, how is the ecology of the human — having crossed the Rubicon — unique in ways that need unique modes of attention with respect to the ecologies of other beings? Further, how does the human ecology connect with those other ecologies? The central goal of ecological ethics today is to understand not just how beings live, evolve, and die alongside one another, but that there are whole interior worlds of beings living, evolving, and dying alongside one another. There is thus huge value in asking these kinds of speculative questions — questions which imply that “The World” as a hegemonic singular is now in the rearview mirror, left behind in a town called Modernity (which, as it turns out, is a rather pedestrian little suburb sitting alongside a much more immense metropolitan cosmos). What we have instead are multiple interlocking ecological worlds only ever partially available to one another where viruses, symbionts, bacteria, predators, and companion species are obtusely breaking one another open; from a certain perspective the situation looks like an ongoing ontological car-jacking, except the cars, criminals, and victims are constantly turning into one another.
Perhaps the human’s unique role in all of this can be to turn back from the other side of the Rubicon and organize a collective that takes the longview into account — including time, reason, imagination, and creativity to compose what Isabelle Stengers calls a Cosmopolitics. Maybe crossing the Rubicon is, then, about moving slowly and tentatively, taking time to speculate and imagine, experimenting and reasoning, trying to be vivid instead of concise, and then trying to be concise instead of vivid. Crossing the Rubicon is primarily about learning how to think ecologically, about taking coexistence as an ontological principle, and perhaps making some good art along the way.