Whitehead, Kant, and Sloterdijk: A Renewed Geocentrism
March 2, 2014 § 8 Comments
[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.