Kant’s Copernican revolution has enjoyed, in diverse ways, a reconceptualization in much current philosophy. I’m interested in doing a quick taxonomy of some of the ways Kant is being thought anew in three different contexts: A.N. Whitehead’s process philosophy, Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology, and Brett Buchanan’s onto-ethology. It seems that in the case of Whitehead, there is disagreement regarding whether or not Whitehead’s cosmology can accept a “radicalized” Kantianism or whether, ultimately, the two are hopelessly incommensurable, regardless of new interventions. In the case of Harman and Buchanan, the differences may be more of degree than of kind; Harman asserts that the gap between entities — perceptual, physical, or otherwise — is ontologically basic to all relations, while Buchanan is principally interested in how the Kantian gap might show up in animal worlds exclusively.
Let’s start with Whitehead where we find two directions taking flight. The first we shall discuss posits a radicalized relation to Kant, the second posits the incommensurability between process philosophy and any distinction between phenomena and noumena. In Without Criteria (2009), Steven Shaviro comments on Whitehead’s “reformed subjectivist principle,” stating that:
Time is produced in and through experience; and experience, in turn, is implicitly temporal. But this circularity does not only apply to us. Taken in this expanded sense, Kant’s Copernican revolution no longer puts human subjectivity at the center of everything. Rather — in better accord with the actual achievement of Copernicus — it decenters the subject. For subjectivity, in the first place, is not an exclusively human privilege. In the second place, it is a manner or formal principal, rather than anything substantial. And finally, subjectivity is decentered because it is itself subject to the very phenomenon that it produces: the inner passage of time (p. 78).
An expanded commentary on this discussion of Kant and Whitehead can be found in the footnotes on the following page. Shaviro continues:
Whitehead rejects correlationism and anthropocentrism precisely by extending Kant’s analyses of conditions of possibility, and of the generative role of time, to all entities in the universe, rather than confining them to the privileged realm of human beings, or of rational minds (p. 79f).
Insofar as we are discussing Whitehead’s reformed subjectivism in terms of the formal arguments Whitehead makes in extending experience to all entities, I am inclined to agree with Shaviro’s analysis. Where I begin to suspect that there might be differences of opinion is whether or not the distribution of experience, for Whitehead, is Kantian in nature or not. In other words, I am interested to know whether Whitehead would accept that his cosmology is a radicalized Kantianism wherein every being experiences something like a noumenal-phenomenal distinction. There seem to be differing interpretations of this particular reading.
Take this passage from the recently published work Nature and Logos (2011) for instance. Hamrick and Van Der Veken write:
Whitehead, like Merleau-Ponty, rejects representative theories of perception. Past actual occasions really are present to the presently concrescing occasion by forming the content of its own birth. Correlatively, Whitehead also rejects Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena. There are no actual entities behind those that appear to us, and our appearances are not re-presentations of “brute facts” standing somehow behind them. Rather, they are the brute facts themselves (p. 196).
Whitehead stands so strongly against what he calls the fallacy of “simple location” that it’s hard to understand how his thinking might be Kantian in nature, even in the expanded form that Shaviro suggests. From his post-Newtonian worldview, Whitehead struggles to impress upon his readers the way in which we must stop adhering to the belief that reality consists of little solid bits of matter isolated from each other at discrete locations in space and time. Instead, Whitehead takes the relativistic view that space-time is enfolded within entities themselves; that duration and spatiality emerges from specific actualities, rather than the other way around.
For Whitehead, it is actual entities themselves that generate space and time (hold on to your hats here folks, it’s a strange sounding statement but one accepted by scientists since Einstein). One might say, then, that Whitehead’s philosophy is incommensurable with the notions of absolute space and absolute time that situate the Kantian ego within its phenomenal-noumenal binary. Whitehead asks us to take his notion of “concrescence” literally, that is, ontologically as opposed to epistemologically, arguing that it is not representations of entities that influence us from afar, but rather that our own bodies, and the complex assemblages we find ourselves amidst, enfold into one another in the curved topologies of relativistic space-time directly. The difficulty in answering the question of Whitehead’s relation to Kant is increased by the formers distinction between “positive” and “negative” prehensions; Whitehead’s way of explaining that the totality of an entity is not fully exposed amidst any given set of relations, even if that entity is fully actual (immanent) to that set of relations. We know that, for Whitehead, all entities “prehend” or “take up” (as Massumi likes to say) their surrounding environments, but never in a total way. Thus if Shaviro’s Whitehead is tenable, then it must have something to do with the positive and negative prehension of entities, and whether these are sufficient to constitute a “gap” of the Kantian variety.
But let’s shift our focus to what the Kantian binary might mean for living beings. I know of no better place to start this exploration than through the work of Jacob Von Uexküll and thankfully we have an excellent secondary source on Uexküll’s work in Brett Buchanan’s book Onto-Ethologies (2008). Buchanan does a fine job of tracing the influence of Uexküll’s theories on such notable continental philosophers as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze (among many others). Of particular interest for our question is what Uexküll’s research on the “Umwelts” of animals might mean for the limitations of our Kantian expansion. Buchanan comments both on the impact of Kant’s philosophy in general, and how it influenced Uexküll’s work specifically, in the following passage:
It is no longer that our ideas and thoughts [in the Kantian schema] mirror the world outside us, but that the world conforms to our cognitive faculties. If this is the case, then it remains the task of the philosopher to ascertain the categories of mind that allow for our sensibility and understanding to construct such a world in which we live…Uexküll expands this thought, however, by attributing subjective perception to not just human forms of perception but to the Umwelten of all animal perceptions (p. 13).
Thus Uexküll argues for a noumenal-phenomenal distinction at the level of life in general, rather than one that exists for humans only. Following Uexküll, Buchanan situates the organism’s Umwelt in relation to the embodied, sensory-motor structure of the organism. In other words, Uexküll and Buchanan are closer in their account of animal perception to the Whiteheadian notion of prehension than to representational theories of mind; this may be part of the reason Buchanan articulates an “onto-ethology” rather than simply an “ethology” – the gap between organisms and their worlds is basic to living beings as such, rather to some specific beings in particular.
In Buchanan’s work we also find a noteworthy discussion of Heidegger’s “worldess stone” wherein Buchanan briefly entertains Graham Harman’s refashioning of Heidegger’s metaphysics, but Buchanan notes that Heidegger “won’t have any of it” (p. 69). Recall that for Harman the issue of being vs. presence is not an exclusive feature of the human-world correlate, but is rather a fundamental gap that presents itself between any two entities. Harman’s position pushes the gap between beings further than both Uexküll and Buchanan, positioning Harman closer to Whitehead (though there is no indication that Buchanan disagrees, in principal, with Harman). The question then remains: can there be a kind of, to coin a phrase, “radical noumena” in Whitehead’s schema, or are such withdrawn entities only permissible within object-oriented philosophies? (Harman and Shaviro have debated this in publication; I won’t dig up the dialogue here, and only mention it since I have now backed into the same dilemma.)
To recap then, we have the following permutations of the Kantian gap:
(1) A Whitehead that allows for and radicalizes the Kantian distinction between noumena and phenomena. This position seems to be affirmed by Shaviro’s reading, and perhaps by way of Whitehead’s distinction between positive and negative prehensions.
(2) A Whitehead where the distinction between noumena and phenomena is impossible to make since Whitehead posits direct, but partial contact between entities where those entities are taken up into one another through prehension.
(3) Uexküll is correct and the noumena-phenomena distinction is a feature of all living-things in-relation-to-their-environment. The bonus: we can make this claim without delving deeper into the ontological relations between nonliving beings (this might have some pragmatic value since people may be more willing to accept and act on this premise, though this position evades deeper philosophical questions).
(4) Harman is correct and the gap between being and presence is ontologically basic so that the gap between living beings and world is just one example of the relations between any two things whatsoever. This position may be desirable since it provides solid ontological support regarding why the human-world relation is similar to the relation between any animal and its world, but forces one to engage in some speculative moves not everyone will be interested in making.
I tend to think the most tenable options are either 1 or 4 (which amount to very similar positions). Now, Harman has argued that Whitehead suffers from what he calls “relationism,” a kind of overmining where all entities are reduced to their position in a larger system of activity. While I don’t entirely agree with this reading of Whitehead, there does seem to be some merit to Harman’s critique given that there is debate among Whiteheadian scholars themselves over whether or not the Kantian distinction can be applied to Whitehead’s philosophy (if it cannot then Harman’s case is bolstered, if it can then Harman and Whitehead emerge closer to one another than before). In any event, the path forward is surely in the application of contrasting pluralisms that enrich the thinking of process philosophers and object-oriented ontologists alike.