Big History and Cosmopolitics

April 16, 2014 § 4 Comments

fournier_6b[Image: Vincent Fournier]

I’ll be speaking with some of the usual suspects at the International Big History Association Conference this August at Dominican University in San Rafael, California. Our Panel description and abstracts can be found below. (Don’t know what Big History is? Me neither until a few weeks ago. Here’s a short primer.)

Panel Title: Cosmopolitics and the Big Journey: Resolving Nature-Culture Dualisms

Abstract: In its research and teaching programs, Big History facilitates the integration of human and natural history into a multidimensional collective history.  There is still much work that remains to be done to articulate collective history without falling back into longstanding dualisms that separate humans from nature.  Along those lines, Big History can benefit from a dialogical encounter with others who are oriented toward overcoming the human/nature dualism, including those involved in the Journey of the Universe project and, in a very different vein, philosophers like Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and others associated with a theoretical movement called “cosmopolitics,” which aims to overcome the separation between the natural world (kosmos) and the constitution of human civilization (politikos).  Initially developed by Stengers following her work with Ilya Prigogine, cosmopolitics aims to articulate a collective history that affirms the intertwining of human societies with the evolutionary unfolding of the cosmos.  Cosmopolitics draws more explicitly than Big History on philosophical concepts useful for overcoming the dualisms separating a realm of humans (subjects, values) from a realm of nature (objects, facts), including concepts associated with process philosophy (Alfred North Whitehead), philosophical biology (Jakob von Uexküll), and French post-structuralist philosophy (Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida).  This panel introduces the idea of cosmopolitics and situates it in relationship to similar approaches to collective history (e.g., Big History, Journey of the Universe), drawing particular attention to the importance of accounting for the axiological dimensions (e.g., ethics, aesthetics, and spirituality) of our collective history.

Adam Robbert

Paper Title: Histories of Lived Experience: Intertwining Aesthetics, Ecology, and Ethology

Abstract: This paper examines the contributions of the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and the biologist Jacob von Uexküll (1864-1944) to an understanding of the aesthetic dimension of Big History, specifically by focusing on the ecological aesthetics of living organisms.  Writing in the early half of the twentieth century, Whitehead and Uexküll remain important contributors to contemporary issues in ethology, ecology, and aesthetics.  Specifically, Whitehead’s critique of the bifurcation of nature and his philosophy of organism provide important tools for thinking about the multicentric nature of ecosystems, which is to say, thinking about the multiple forms of interiority (agency, value, and subjectivity) distributed throughout ecosystems. Likewise, Uexkull’s account of multispecies perspectives (“umwelts”) remains a cornerstone of contemporary ethology. By considering Whitehead and Uexküll together a comprehensive approach to ecology is rendered that includes the lived experience of individual organisms alongside the physical structures by which those experiences are enacted. This paper suggests that an ecological approach to ethology and aesthetics complicates traditional philosophical distinctions between ontology and epistemology, and between the empirical and the transcendental, by placing both in contexts of evolutionary process.  Beginning with an account of Whitehead’s speculative philosophy the paper moves toward a reading of Uexküll’s umwelten and considers the implication of both accounts for philosophical approaches to the aesthetic dimension of Big History.  Aesthetic value is not the sole property of human beings but is evident throughout the entire evolution of life and, for Whitehead, throughout the whole universe.

Sam Mickey

Paper Title: Concepts for Collective History: Cosmopolitics and Journey of the Universe

Abstract: Cosmopolitics shares an aim with Big History and Journey of the Universe (JOTU): to articulate a collective history that integrates the human and the natural world.  Whereas the term “cosmopolitanism” normally refers to a universal humanity (e.g., human rights), Isabelle Stengers developed her concept of cosmopolitics as a way to bring the cosmos into the procedures, institutions, and experiences that make up human society.  Cosmopolitics critiques the bifurcation of the world into two halves: one side populated by humans, values, meaning, and subjectivity, and the other side populated by nature, facts, matter, and objectivity.  Cosmopolitics thus facilitates a redistribution of categories such as value, agency, subjectivity, and experience, such that those categories apply no longer exclusively to humans but in various capacities to all beings.  The cosmological scope of this redistribution resonates with the work of the JOTU project.  While cosmopolitics derives primarily from philosophers (Stengers, Latour, and others drawing from poststructuralist and process philosophies), the JOTU project was developed amidst the intersection of cosmology (Brian Swimme) and the field of religion and ecology (Mary Evelyn Tucker).  Swimme and Tucker carry forward the integrative vision of the cultural historian Thomas Berry, for whom the cosmos cannot be sufficiently understood as a series of objects but must be understood as a “communion of subjects,” such that meaning and value are woven throughout the entire fabric of the evolutionary journey.  Cosmopolitics and JOTU provide concepts that assist the effort of Big History to continue articulating an integrative history beyond human/nature dualisms.

Kim Carfore

Paper Title: Post-Secular Justice and the Ghosts of Big History

Abstract: The poststructuralist movement of post-World War II French theory contributed to various criticisms of the dualistic structures prevalent in modern thought, including the dualism between human culture and nonhuman nature.  Along these lines, concepts developed by poststructuralists can facilitate the integration of human and natural history, as is evident in the influence of poststructuralism on cosmopolitical accounts of collective history.  This paper focuses on contributions to Big History in the work of the poststructuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida, who developed the theoretical method called “deconstruction.”  I indicate how deconstruction welcomes the “otherness” of beings, which has an ethically compelling force that puts into question the boundaries of animal/human and nature/culture dualisms.  For Derrida, the historical work of remembering the past is also the work of mourning others (including nonhuman others) and doing justice to their memory.  Although Derrida is a relatively atheistic and materialistic philosopher, he argues that, insofar as this call for justice is inherent to the work of history, there is a messianic impulse in history, an impulse to welcome a more just future by reflecting on past injustices.  In other words, irreducible to a series of facts, history is an encounter with haunting memories—ghosts.  The pursuit of justice requires scholars and teachers of Big History to cultivate messianic attention to the haunting otherness of past others.  Not secular but not quite “religious,” it is a post-secular messianic attention, which accounts for the calls for justice in history without confessing adherence to any particular Messiah or religious tradition.

AIME Group Reboot

March 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

After a short break the AIME reading group is back in action. Philip Conway leads this week’s discussion with his post on Chapter 8 here. Philip is easily one of the best narrators of Latour’s work we have available. His blog, Circling Circles, is highly recommended to anyone interested in Actor-Network theory, Science and Technology Studies; and the philosophies of Bruno Latour, William James, Alfred North Whitehead, and Isabelle Stengers. I suspect many readers of this blog will appreciate what Philip is up to.

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. « Read the rest of this entry »

Three Types of Pluralism

February 21, 2014 § 17 Comments


Over the past few weeks there has been extensive discussion over the so-called “ontological turn” in anthropology. Many of these commentaries were written either in direct response to a recent meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), or were aimed at the rising tide of “ontology” in anthropology more generally. I first came to learn of the AAA’s shift to ontology through friend and colleague Jeremy Trombley (see here and here). Like so many “turns” this one has inspired seemingly equal parts enthusiasm and dismay, and that’s not surprising.  « Read the rest of this entry »

On Dissertation Writing from an Editor’s Perspective

February 20, 2014 § 7 Comments

As an editor I read a lot of academic scholarship. In 2.5 years of work I have edited some 200 unique pieces of writing, most of them from different authors. Around 80 of these have been graduate-level theses or dissertations (the rest being articles, chapters, proposals, or smaller qualifying papers). Having had the opportunity to reflect on so much research, it strikes me that there are a few recurring themes and issues that almost universally characterize the thesis / dissertation process. In this post I want to describe a common issue that plagues many writers at the graduate level: The ability to focus in on a very singular topic or issue. In the way of achieving this ability are a few common obstacles. « Read the rest of this entry »


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