Whitehead, Kant, and Sloterdijk: A Renewed Geocentrism

March 2, 2014 § 8 Comments

Face[Image: Morgan Herrin]

Yesterday, as I was listening to Melanie Sehgal’s lecture on Whitehead’s metaphysics as situated metaphysics, I was reminded of two passages in Whitehead’s work that have stuck out to me ever since reading them. The first is the oft-quoted airplane analogy Whitehead gives in Process and Reality to describe his mode of speculative thinking. Through this analogy, Whitehead suggests speculative thinking always takes flight from a given location — a context, a historical epoch, a field of concerns, etc. — and then, from this atmospheric perspective, the speculative philosopher attempts to give, in Whitehead’s own words, “a coherent, logical, and necessary system of general ideas” that are also “applicable” and “adequate” to every element of our experience. In other words, for Whitehead, speculative philosophy’s method is a practice of thought wherein one starts with experience, ascends as though in an airplane to the height of generality — away from the structure of particular experience to the structure of experience in general — and then lands once again back into the particularity of experience.

The second passage I am thinking of offers another analogy and deals with a different but related subject. This one comes from Modes of Thought where Whitehead discusses the different modes of experience issuing from different kinds of beings — animals and humans in particular. Here 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” (27). I have written about my fascination with the Rubicon analogy before, but I never thought about it alongside of the airplane analogy from Process and Reality until yesterday. Both analogies raise the same questions for me: We know more or less where the airplane is before it takes off and when it lands, but where is the airplane when in flight? Likewise we know quite a bit about what the living world was like before humans emerged (or before mammals in general, even), and we also know a bit about what our own lives are like today, but the same questions emerge: What is the Rubicon? What’s it made of and how was it crossed?

In my earlier post I suggested that quite a few philosophers have described in detail what the Rubicon analogy suggests — the presence of something like a cogito or transcendental ego, a set of faculties that enable human beings to reflect upon, synthesize, or construct experience in general rather only a singular moment in particular. On one side of the Rubicon, then, is something like what Kant called empirical cognition, or cognition of particular objects encountered in experience, and then, on the other side of the Rubicon, is something like Kantian transcendental cognition, or knowledge of the a priori conditions of human experience as such. For Kant transcendental cognition allows an investigation into the constructive nature of human experience as a mode of thought beyond the mere passive reception of sense impressions that flow from one particular moment to the next. Kant of course gives no account of how something like a transcendental ego could have emerged historically since there was yet no theory of evolution articulated that could describe the emergence of such a subject when Kant was writing. The transcendental ego is posited without an account of its genesis.

Process philosophies like Whitehead’s on the other hand attempt to give not just an account of the structure of experience as such, but also an account of the ways in which experiences become, intersect, and perish. Thus if Kant inverted the formula that knowledge must conform to objects by suggesting that it was rather the case that objects, as we experience them, must conform to our knowledge of them, the Whiteheadian move is to add another inversion: Objects as they appear to us are enfolded by our knowledge of them, but the structures by which we are able to experience anything whatsoever must themselves be enfolded into yet larger cosmological and evolutionary processes. Entangling what Kant called the transcendental ego within larger cosmological processes is one way we can begin to ecologize Kant by reading him through Whitehead. But let’s return to Whitehead’s analogies for a moment, and then I will say something about how I think Peter Sloterdijk can help us visualize the Whiteheadian inversion more concretely. In many ways my interests in reading ecology philosophically drives at trying understand the relationships between the airplane, the runway, and the sky, in the first analogy, or how to interpret the journey from one side of the Rubicon to the other, in the second. To me this means terrestrializing the capacity for speculative thinking by bringing to the fore an often neglected reality: Every mode of human thought has as its condition of possibility the pre-existing ecologies of earth.

This is where I think Sloterdijk can help. In The World Interior of Capital Sloterdijk writes persuasively of the relationship between the earth and human speculative faculties. Sloterdijk writes of, “the one earth, which serves as the bearer of world formations” (10), and that “[earth] is now the transcendental star that comes into play as the locational condition for all self-reflections” (25), a star that “carries flora, fauna, and cultures” (29) and that is, “the exemplary hybrid in which the empirical is unified with the transcendental — on the one hand, an ordinary object of ordinary research, and on the other hand, the singular carrier of singular intelligences ” (25), which issue forth in “a semiotic multiverse comprising at least five thousand authentic languages (6,700 at a recent UNESCO count) and a virtually inestimable multiplicity of dialects and sub-dialects that always include mythologies, ‘religions,’ ritualisms, arts, and gestures” (127).

In other words, where Kant gives us a subject-centered account of the conditions of possibility of experience, and Whitehead gives an account of the metaphysical structure of any experience whatsoever, Sloterdijk provides a strange hybrid of the two that is neither completely general in the Whiteheadian sense nor completely anthropocentric in the Kantian sense. It is rather a geocentric account of the relation between nonhuman evolutionary phenomena and the emergence of speculative faculties that possess a general and imaginative character but are nevertheless closely entangled, constrained, and enabled by the geological conditions of possibility set forth by the earth. The move initiated here by Sloterdijk is to my mind one of the most important philosophical projects of the twenty-first century — to place the earth as the condition of possibility for all philosophy, and indeed of all living activity of any kind. The details of this account have yet to be sketched out, but some of the boundary conditions are clearly set: The transcendental is attached to and dependent on the terrestrial. 

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§ 8 Responses to Whitehead, Kant, and Sloterdijk: A Renewed Geocentrism

  • dmfant says:

    too bad she had to share the stage/time here as I think it only took away from what she was developing but see what you think of C.C.’s take on this matter of Geo-logical speculations:

    http://syntheticzero.net/2014/03/01/is-the-anthropocene-a-doomsday-device-colebrook-wolfe/

  • Philip says:

    I find ‘monogeism’ to be one of Sloterdijk’s most useful coinages. I don’t think it’s overstating the point to say that every philosophy must henceforth recognise the profundity of this condition: we are fundamentally bound to one planet, one earth; we are Earthbound, in Latour’s terms.

    And that very geocentrism is actually a necessary precondition of recognising the brutal indifference of the rest of the universe to us. Planet Earth is the only speck of existence that’s even partially disposed towards our well-being – and its good favour is not guaranteed, indeed it’s precarious.

    That’s not just an ecological or practical truth; any metaphysics that recognises life as something that figures on its register must now see that even if there is life ‘out there,’ or if, somewhere in the vastness of the cosmos, there is another celestial object that could possibly support life, it doesn’t particularly matter. Even if there are countless inhabited or potentially inhabitable orbs in existence the distance between them is almost certainly so vast that they effectively inhabit separate universes. And, regardless, we’re now pressed into a civilisationary timescale where such fantasies seem utterly ludicrous.

    I think it says a lot that sci-fi is increasingly turning away from the old-school Star Trek groundplan of a lush, teeming universe towards an empty, impersonal universe, even one where the danger comes from exploration itself. Dr Who still operates in a lush, teeming universe but it realises a pure escapism; the TARDIS transcends time and space rather than travelling through it.

    I suppose it’s the difference between being from the Earth and of the Earth.

    • Adam Robbert says:

      Monogeism is a great phrase, and so is Earthbound for that matter. I think Kim Stanley Robinson’s books really drive the importance of both phrases home: Even if we do succeed in leaving Earth we will forever be tasked with re-creating Earth-like ecologies with similar gravities, atmospheric conditions, and familiar flora and fauna where ever we go. I think the strength of Robinson’s books is that he denies us both extra-terrestrial contact and the kind of faster-than-light travel that would enable us to visit the (most likely) vastly populated cosmos in the sort of standard spaceship-through-the-sky visions of popular sci-fi. This re-focuses the narrative on Earth and the planets within our solar ecosystem. A helpful thought device.

  • Andrew says:

    Appreciating your thoughts and by way of a literary constellation on a geologic note, Peter Weber speaks to the transcendent terrestrial quite wonderfully here:

    Karsten’s Steinway was trickier than my Japanese imitation. He’d inherited it from his Grandfather, who had been a famous geographer and was able to say at the end of a protean career that he had touched, described or climbed every rock formation on earth. It was he who had proposed the theory of sound of sounds in rocks, which treats every single stone as a tone or a sound event and has become an accepted doctrine. Some of his statements that we struggled with as students remain grainy, others have become carved in stone: “Nothing more accurately represents our consciousness than Swiss molasse, not craggy limestone with its immeasurable system of caves and not the crystalline ur-mountains that reach into the depths of the earth.”

    In his trailblazing essay of the thirties, simply titled “Major and Minor”, he was the first to wed the two modes to rocks, the major, the harder mode assigned to the brightly shimmering limestone massifs carved into mighty temples by wind and rain, the waters running off from within. The minor, the softer mode, he assigned to molasse, which consists only of deposits, which erodes more easily, retains water, since strat of clay are deposited in between. Precipitation feeds into rivers of molasse which can rise rapidly.

    “Molasse contains all types of rock, all of time universal is deposited in the scree.” Karsten’s grandfather wrote such sentences in the thirties prior to devoting himself entirely to the crystalline phenomenon, the basin of the world, in which he situated monotony: the mode-less or prehistoric key, the unitone.

    “Everything is melted down when it is pushed toward the centre of the earth where there is a fire, which I compare to the passions that can come to a boil in human beings. Sedimentation burns out only if the passions are ignited and then regroups, the unexpected breaking the surface.” His writings on granite and the formation of gneiss remained fragments, and end with the sentence, “It is possible that there are crystal formations in the interior of cooled masses of granite, in which the enigma of the world is conserved like an insect in amber.”

    Peter Weber
    Dur und Moll/ Major and Minor
    Fragmente aus seinem Buch “Silber und Salbader”, Roman Suhrkamp

    To conversations and the continents.

  • andlaird says:

    Appreciating your thoughts and by way of a literary constellation, or excursus on a geologic note, Peter Weber speaks to the transcendent terrestrial quite wonderfully here:

    Karsten’s Steinway was trickier than my Japanese imitation. He’d inherited it from his Grandfather, who had been a famous geographer and was able to say at the end of a protean career that he had touched, described or climbed every rock formation on earth. It was he who had proposed the theory of sound of sounds in rocks, which treats every single stone as a tone or a sound event and has become an accepted doctrine. Some of his statements that we struggled with as students remain grainy, others have become carved in stone: “Nothing more accurately represents our consciousness than Swiss molasse, not craggy limestone with its immeasurable system of caves and not the crystalline ur-mountains that reach into the depths of the earth.”

    In his trailblazing essay of the thirties, simply titled “Major and Minor”, he was the first to wed the two modes to rocks, the major, the harder mode assigned to the brightly shimmering limestone massifs carved into mighty temples by wind and rain, the waters running off from within. The minor, the softer mode, he assigned to molasse, which consists only of deposits, which erodes more easily, retains water, since strata of clay are deposited in between. Precipitation feeds into rivers of molasse which can rise rapidly.

    “Molasse contains all types of rock, all of time universal is deposited in the scree.” Karsten’s grandfather wrote such sentences in the thirties prior to devoting himself entirely to the crystalline phenomenon, the basin of the world, in which he situated monotony: the mode-less or prehistoric key, the unitone.

    “Everything is melted down when it is pushed toward the centre of the earth where there is a fire, which I compare to the passions that can come to a boil in human beings. Sedimentation burns out only if the passions are ignited and then regroups, the unexpected breaking the surface.” His writings on granite and the formation of gneiss remained fragments, and end with the sentence, “It is possible that there are crystal formations in the interior of cooled masses of granite, in which the enigma of the world is conserved like an insect in amber.”

    Peter Weber
    Dur und Moll/ Major and Minor
    Fragmente aus seinem Buch “Silber und Salbader”, Roman Suhrkamp

    Here’s to conversations and the continents.

  • dmfant says:

    http://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/1666278

    assessment for adaptation?

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