Concept and Sense I

December 23, 2014 § 1 Comment


In the next few posts I will explore a set of familiar problems: The relation of knowledge to the world, on the one hand, and the relation of knowledge to subjects, on the other. These questions, in turn, connect with two general images of thought, the representational and the enactive. Among many others, we find variants of this distinction in the works of Isabelle Stengers and Andrew Pickering. For Stengers this distinction plays out in the difference between the ecology of ideas and the ecology of practices. For Pickering it plays out through the representational and the performative idioms of knowledge. While I share with Stengers and Pickering the emphasis on practice, I also believe there are good reasons that representational and enactive accounts of knowledge are not mutually exclusive. Instead, I argue, they are different moments in the ecology of learning: A representation is a concept that is not yet internalized and is therefore not yet a part of the subject’s lived experience of the world. An enaction is a concept integrated as part of the subject’s capacity to perceive the environment and is therefore part of the subject’s practical engagement with his or her surroundings.

The shift between these moments marks the concept’s move from theoretical possibility to practical actuality. In the posts to follow I will explore how it is that a concept can move from a conscious representation to a capacity of the body, absorbed as part of the subject’s skillful ability to engage the environment. I suggest there are three phases to the process. First, the concept is accessed as a symbol obtained from the surrounding media environment. Second, the concept is held as a conscious representation within the subject’s perceptual field. Third, the concept moves from conscious representation to unconscious capacity, operating as an organizer of experience. To describe these phases, I first discuss the role of concepts in sensation, which I take as analogous to the relationship between knowledge and experience or idea and practice. I then describe in more detail the conditions that bring different concepts and senses into and out of contact with different kinds of subjects. The role of the media environment is central to this part of the discussion. Finally, I suggest that this ongoing transformation of sensation and conception is best described as an ecology of knowledge enacted by an ecology of bodies and nonhuman agents.

Ecological Metaphysics

October 7, 2014 § 24 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.”

Big History and Cosmopolitics

April 16, 2014 § 6 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.

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. « Read the rest of this entry »

Philosophies of Significance

October 9, 2013 § 46 Comments

tumblr_mpu617LJ6g1sa1bljo1_500[Photo: Casey Cripe]

Alva Noë recently posted a short commentary on the entanglement of science and values. I think readers will be interested in it. At first blush Noë’s point is fairly straight forward: Science and values are always entangled because the very characteristics science depends on — reason, consistency, coherence, plausibility, and replicability — are themselves values. Without some kind of agreement that these are the values that best serve the creation of scientific facts there would be no foundation upon which the sciences could maintain consistency. Science depends on a set of extra-scientific decisions, and we need to pursue and cultivate these decisions in order for the possibility of science to emerge in the first place. Simple enough. « Read the rest of this entry »

Earth Aesthetics: Knowledge and Media Ecologies

July 14, 2013 § 13 Comments


[Image: Mona Hatoum]

Next Saturday July 20 I’ll be presenting a paper at the Integral Theory Conference in San Francisco. This year a major theme of the conference will be an Integral Theory – Critical Realism dialogue with Roy Bhaskar himself giving a keynote at the event. Though I am neither an Integral Theorist nor Critical Realist per se, I am happy to contribute my own thoughts on ecology and philosophy to an already diverse event. My paper considers the avenues opened up by thinking about the ontology of concepts and ideas from an ecological perspective. More specifically, I explore the relation between subjectivity and an ecological conception of concepts. I’ve uploaded a finalized version of my paper for tomorrow. You can read it here here, or in the text below. « Read the rest of this entry »

Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway Sawyer Seminar Audio

May 21, 2013 § 5 Comments

Isabelle Stengers Lecture Part 1:

Isabelle Stengers Lecture Part 2:


Donna Haraway Response and Q & A:

Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway Sawyer Seminar Notes

May 21, 2013 § 7 Comments


[Image: Ger Kelliher]

Cosmopolitics and reconstituting worlds; Concrete political clashes between worlds; 1995 majority of French population believes the future of their children to be worse than their own; the end of the trust in progress; Globalization; sacrifice for competition; Political Ontology; civilizing modern practices

What are concepts good for? Science wars—scientists and critical thinkers—rationality, universality; modern hegemony—knowledge cannot be about representation only

Concepts have a power; the self-confirming power of representationalism; the concept of practice is introduced to divide scientists (to break “Science” up); open up a space for thought in which the monolithic figure of objective knowledge is broken

Reformulating the claims of the sciences rather than directly denying them—situating objectivity as a rare achievement. The particular and exceptional nature of objective interpretation; the general reduction. « Read the rest of this entry »

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