Concept and Capacity: The Ecology of Knowledge

April 3, 2015 § 3 Comments


Below I’m posting my first of two abstracts for papers I’m giving at the 10th International Whitehead Conference. I’m re-working some familiar themes here, but, as they say, repetition is the best teacher. Will you, dear readers, also be in attendance at Claremont this July? Drop me a line via email or in the comments and let’s coordinate.

Track: Re-Imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism

Title: Concept and Capacity: The Ecology of Knowledge

Author: Adam Robbert

Abstract: In Process and Reality Alfred North Whitehead writes, “a new idea introduces a new alternative; and we are no less indebted to a thinker when we adopt the alternative which he discarded. Philosophy never reverts to its old position after the shock of a new philosopher.” In this paper I ask, what is an idea? How does it introduce a new alternative? How does this new alternative relate to human knowledge and experience? I argue that the best way to understand human experience, now or in history, is by demonstrating the ecological basis of all human thought, action, and perception. To understand how knowledge and ideas participate in human action, I draw on literature from the philosophy mind, particularly enactivism, to propose that knowledge is a skill of perception waiting to be acquired. It is an attunement to new aesthetic contrasts made possible by the coordination of multiple species, practices, and technologies. Similarly, I define conceptualization as a speculative capacity, a performance of the body that leaps the subject beyond immediacy into the spaces of possibility afforded by the present. Stated differently, knowledge represents the acquisition of a conceptual faculty, an ability to mediate difference and contrast in the environment in a meaningful way. I conclude by suggesting that the organism is that place in the universe where material nature is transformed into conceptual nature, where matter becomes concept in the mode of embodied awareness.

Time and Events

March 24, 2015 § 6 Comments

[Image: Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji]

I just came across Massimo Pigliucci’s interesting review of Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin’s book The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. There are more than a few Whiteheadian themes explored throughout the review, including Unger and Smolin’s (U&S) view that time should be read as an abstraction from events and that the “laws” of the universe are better conceptualized as habits or contingent causal connections secured by the ongoingness of those events rather than as eternal, abstract formalisms. (This entangling of laws with phenomena, of events with time, is one of the ways we can think towards an ecological metaphysics.)

But what I am particularly interested in is the short discussion on Platonism and mathematical realism. I sometimes think of mathematical realism as the view that numbers, and thus the abstract formalisms they create, are real, mind-independent entities, and that, given this view, mathematical equations are discovered (i.e., they actually exist in the world) rather than created (i.e., humans made them up to fill this or that pragmatic need). The review makes it clear, though, that this definition doesn’t push things far enough for the mathematical realist. Instead, the mathematical realist argues for not just the mind-independent existence of numbers but also their nature-independence—math as independent not just of all knowers but of all natural phenomena, past, present, or future.

U&S present an alternative to mathematical realisms of this variety that I find compelling and more consistent with the view that laws are habits and that time is an abstraction from events. Here’s the reviewer’s take on U&S’s argument (the review starts with a quote from U&S and then unpacks it a bit):

“The third idea is the selective realism of mathematics. (We use realism here in the sense of relation to the one real natural world, in opposition to what is often described as mathematical Platonism: a belief in the real existence, apart from nature, of mathematical entities.) Now dominant conceptions of what the most basic natural science is and can become have been formed in the context of beliefs about mathematics and of its relation to both science and nature. The laws of nature, the discerning of which has been the supreme object of science, are supposed to be written in the language of mathematics.” (p. xii)

But they are not, because there are no “laws” and because mathematics is a human (very useful) invention, not a mysterious sixth sense capable of probing a deeper reality beyond the empirical. This needs some unpacking, of course. Let me start with mathematics, then move to the issue of natural laws.

I was myself, until recently, intrigued by mathematical Platonism [8]. It is a compelling idea, which makes sense of the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” as Eugene Wigner famously put it [9]. It is a position shared by a good number of mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics. It is based on the strong gut feeling that mathematicians have that they don’t invent mathematical formalisms, they “discover” them, in a way analogous to what empirical scientists do with features of the outside world. It is also supported by an argument analogous to the defense of realism about scientific theories and advanced by Hilary Putnam: it would be nothing short of miraculous, it is suggested, if mathematics were the arbitrary creation of the human mind, and yet time and again it turns out to be spectacularly helpful to scientists [10].

But there are, of course, equally (more?) powerful counterarguments, which are in part discussed by Unger in the first part of the book. To begin with, the whole thing smells a bit too uncomfortably of mysticism: where, exactly, is this realm of mathematical objects? What is its ontological status? Moreover, and relatedly, how is it that human beings have somehow developed the uncanny ability to access such realm? We know how we can access, however imperfectly and indirectly, the physical world: we evolved a battery of sensorial capabilities to navigate that world in order to survive and reproduce, and science has been a continuous quest for expanding the power of our senses by way of more and more sophisticated instrumentation, to gain access to more and more (and increasingly less relevant to our biological fitness!) aspects of the world.

Indeed, it is precisely this analogy with science that powerfully hints to an alternative, naturalistic interpretation of the (un)reasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Math too started out as a way to do useful things in the world, mostly to count (arithmetics) and to measure up the world and divide it into manageable chunks (geometry). Mathematicians then developed their own (conceptual, as opposed to empirical) tools to understand more and more sophisticated and less immediate aspects of the world, in the process eventually abstracting entirely from such a world in pursuit of internally generated questions (what we today call “pure” mathematics).

U&S do not by any means deny the power and effectiveness of mathematics. But they also remind us that precisely what makes it so useful and general — its abstraction from the particularities of the world, and specifically its inability to deal with temporal asymmetries (mathematical equations in fundamental physics are time-symmetric, and asymmetries have to be imported as externally imposed background conditions) — also makes it subordinate to empirical science when it comes to understanding the one real world.

This empiricist reading of mathematics offers a refreshing respite to the resurgence of a certain Idealism in some continental circles (perhaps most interestingly spearheaded by Quentin Meillassoux). I’ve heard mention a few times now that the various factions squaring off within continental philosophy’s avant garde can be roughly approximated as a renewed encounter between Kantian finitude and Hegelian absolutism. It’s probably a bit too stark of a binary, but there’s a sense in which the stakes of these arguments really do center on the ontological status of mathematics in the natural world. It’s not a direct focus of my own research interests, really, but it’s a fascinating set of questions nonetheless.

Ecological Metaphysics

October 7, 2014 § 25 Comments


[Image: Neil Krug]

[Update: Leon responds to some of my questions here.]

Leon Niemoczynski writes an interesting post on ecological metaphysics here. While we have our differences concerning the contemporary philosophical landscape, Leon and I agree quite strongly that ecology represents something like the future basis for philosophy. However, while he lists quite a few resources for thinking philosophy through ecology, and ecology through philosophy, we don’t get much in the way of articulating what, exactly, makes a philosophy or a metaphysics ecological. Leon writes:

The key ideas for [American and Continental] traditions, I think, when it comes to developing an environmental philosophy that is inspired by recent positions of speculative philosophy in realist and materialist orientation, is that these metaphysical positions are developed so that they are thoroughly ecological.  Thus, “speculative naturalism” is an ecological metaphysics as much as it is a realist and materialist metaphysics.

Okay, but what does “ecological” in this context mean? To be sure, there are some references to the process tradition, to naturalism, to actor-networks, to materialism et al., but we don’t get an account of what specifically differentiates an ecological metaphysics from any other kind realist, materialist, or naturalist metaphysics. This raises an important question: What are the precise criteria for identifying philosophical ecologies?

For Leon, is philosophical ecology just naturalism updated?* Does a philosophy concerned with creatures and relationships necessarily constitute it as ecological? I don’t think so. Lest we simply render ecological metaphysics as Nature 2.0., I’ve suggested a preliminary definition of an ecological metaphysics where ecology is the breakdown between structure and content. This is the most general definition of ecology I have been able to formulate. In the biological sense, the breakdown between structure and content applies to organisms and environments, to genetics and epigenetics, to genotypes and phenotypes, to nature and nurture, to cultural history and biological history. In a more philosophical key, this formulation references the breakdown between the transcendental and the empirical, between the ontological and the epistemological, and between appearance and reality. (I have a recent paper on this breakdown here and a shorter synopsis here, both of which place aesthetics as an important category for philosophical ecology, a move I think Leon would affirm.)

Whitehead of course is a key influence for me here, but so is Isabelle Stengers, if not more so. Not enough has been written on the entanglement of the physics of laws (read “structure”) and the physics of phenomena (read “content”) she details in Cosmopolitics. Readers of Whitehead will notice that Stengers’s entanglement of laws and phenomena mirrors very closely Whitehead’s ontological principle, and it also comes close to the physicist Lee Smolin’s reading of cosmic evolution and the emergence of physical laws. In the case of Whitehead, Stengers, and Smolin, it’s not enough that we think of physical laws as atemporal and necessary. Instead, we must understand that the laws themselves emerged at a point in cosmic history and that they are in an important sense immanent to and entangled with all phenomena. Ecology is an entanglement of laws and phenomena; the real is ecological, evolving, recursive; the cosmos is an ecological event.

Here there’s a breakdown of structure and content at a very basic cosmological level, which leads us to a related point about ecological metaphysics: the cosmos is historical all the way up and all the way down, all the way backwards and all the way forwards. Leon quotes the popular Whiteheadian aphorism “Other cosmic epochs are possible” to get at the same point, but when he writes, “The adventure of the natural world and the agencies within it is far from over [emphasis mine]” I have to disagree. And I also have to point out that Leon is contradicting himself. (Earlier in the post Leon writes, “There is no super-order or container of “Nature.”  There is, on the other hand, agencies and networks, or better, creatures and relationships.”) Thus if ecology is a general condition that describes the breakdown of structure and content, and if there really are cosmic dimensions to this statement, then the adventure of the natural world and the agencies within it is precisely what’s over.

This ongoing breakdown is, I think, where we need to start with philosophy and ecology.

*If naturalism is the route we choose to take, I think whatever “naturalism” means these days must come to grips with Steven Shaviro’s “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature.”

Evolutionary Transcendentals

September 23, 2014 § Leave a comment


[Image: Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian]

In response to my previous post on philosophical ecology, Claire Fanger writes, “This is helpful, illuminating and thought provoking as always; and yet I feel as though it struggles with the dichotomies it seeks to move past. I want to suggest that all the dichotomies you explore here have in common that they seem to posit an infinitude of being and a finitude of knowledge seeking to grasp it.”

I think Claire is right, and I should have been more clear about the context for the previous post. The points on appearance and reality, ontology and epistemology, and the empirical and the transcendental were excerpted from a longer essay wherein I deal with precisely the issue Claire raises.

Below I excerpt the section of my paper that deals with questions related to the ontological status of transcendentals and with how to conceive of related questions (e.g., “ground”) from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. It’s becoming clear to me that what I’m after is some version of a geophilosophy that affords a description of something we might call evolutionary transcendentals or an ecological a priori. Here is the relevant excerpt:

Whitehead’s cosmology acknowledges that the conditions of possibility of human experience have their own conditions of existence set by the ecological conditions of reality. In Whitehead’s approach, the ground, to use a traditional philosophical term, is not a primordial layer that sits as a backdrop upon which events occur; rather, for Whitehead the ground is a shifting and co-implicative terrain of diverse and evolving beings, a collision of multiple trajectories, lured in different ways by different concerns and possibilities. In Whitehead’s view, space and time are not containers but are instead emergent features spun off from the adventures of entities themselves. Stated in other terms, the conditions of possibility for human experience and knowledge are not Kantian a priori categories of the mind alone, nor even a fixed layer of some special substance, instead the condition of possibility for human experience, or any other being’s experience, is a multispecies collective of other beings, both living and non-living. (pp. 6–7)

I have also uploaded the full paper, which goes into all these questions in more detail, here. (I mentioned before this is a modified version of the IBHA paper I gave in August.)

A Philosophical Ecology

September 20, 2014 § 20 Comments


In my last two talks, I began to lay the groundwork for a philosophical ecology. Such a philosophy engages traditional philosophical categories—e.g, appearance and reality, ontology and epistemology, and the empirical and the transcendental—in a new light informed by an evolutionary and ecological framework. Below I summarize the ways in which each of these categories are transformed by the ecological insights of Alva Noë, Jacob von Uexküll, and Alfred North Whitehead. There’s much more work to be done in this area, but this at least gives us a sketch for how ecology will continue to transform philosophy in the coming years. « Read the rest of this entry »

Upcoming Talks Near and Far

September 15, 2014 § 3 Comments

Stunning Macro Photographs of Insects[Image: Yudy Sauw]

Just a quick update on some speaking events. This Friday, September 19, I’ll be speaking on a panel in San Francisco at the California Institute of Integral Studies. This talk will largely be a repeat of the panel presentation on Cosmopolitics we gave at the IBHA conference this past August—though this time with more Cosmopolitics and less Big History. If you live in the Bay Area feel free to stop by. The event is free and runs from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.

Further down the road, I’ll be participating in a number of ways at the 10th International Whitehead Conference to be held at Pomona College in June of 2015. In terms of speaking, I’ll be presenting on two panels: “Late-Modernity and its Reductive Monism” and “The Universe Story and Inclusive History as the Context of Meaning.” Outlines for both tracks are available here.

For the first talk I plan on exploring Vicki Bell’s ecologies of concern in the context of my own research on concepts (see here and here). The second talk will again focus on Cosmopolitics. I haven’t sketched out the details yet, and there’s still a ways to go before the event, so I am anticipating that my thinking will evolve between now and then. I do have a sense though that the first talk will center specifically on human beings, focusing on epistemology, critical philosophy, and politics, and that the second talk will focus more on cosmology and speculative philosophy. No doubt many of my notes for both talks will appear in some form on Knowledge Ecology. 

Lastly, in addition to the panel presentations, I’ll also be doing some footwork helping to assemble the track on Whitehead and eco-politics.

Histories of Lived Experience

August 8, 2014 § 14 Comments

tumblr_n7v7s4CrVw1qzngato1_1280[Image: Edward Burtynsky]

Earlier today I delivered a talk on ethology, ecology, and aesthetics as part of a panel on Cosmopolitics at the International Big History Conference held in San Rafael, CA. I am posting my talk below, which you can also find in .pdf form here.

Histories of Lived Experience: Intertwining Ethology, Ecology, And Aesthetics

Adam Robbert, San Francisco, CA

Paper presented at the International Big History Conference, Dominican University, San Rafael, CA, August 8.

What is the significance of meaning in Big History? There is a great diversity of opinion on this issue. For example, Eric Chaisson, one of the original board members of the IBHA, holds that Big History must let go of concepts such as intentionality, subjectivity, and, presumably, meaning, in order to understand evolution objectively.[1] Conversely, the focus of my talk is that an understanding of meaning is necessary for an understanding of evolution at its most fundamental level. A central claim of my talk is that we have to understand that which is meaningful to organisms if ever we hope to comprehend the history of evolution on Earth. My talk thus offers a non-anthropocentric and aesthetic account of meaning in the context of geological history. Ecology from this view is an ongoing entanglement of meanings, concerns, and decisions, and it marks the space where the division between matter and meaning breaks down.  « Read the rest of this entry »

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