Cosmology and Critique

June 10, 2015 § 12 Comments

bees-1[Image: Ren Ri]

As if I haven’t posted about Whitehead enough recently, I need to link to Craig Hickman’s introductory post on Process and Reality. It’s one of the clearest and shortest takes on what’s at stake in Whitehead’s philosophy I’ve read and I recommend it to anyone struggling to find a way into the notoriously difficult account given in that workOne comment in particular stands out to me. Craig writes:

Simply put Whitehead is saying that the Kantian tradition of critique, the critical project, is at an end, and needs to be supplemented by a constructive project rather than more critique; secondly, there is a need to model or enframe an adequate philosophical scheme or cosmological perspective that will entail making explicit its own constructive engendering processes and include the work of present day sciences; thirdly, the need to base this scheme on the condition of science, yet unlike science to make explicit what is only formulated at the factual level in the sciences themselves; and, finally, to realize that this is an open-ended incomplete task, one that will never be closed off or finalized because the universe itself is not completed but is like the sciences and philosophy itself an ongoing project-in-process. There can no longer be a static system of the universe or knowledge, rather reality is in process and becoming.

The key concept to think about here is critique. What did Whitehead mean by this? What did Kant mean by this? If the critical project is at an end, does that mean we stop being critical in a colloquial sense? The short answer is no. I take the word critique here to mean something very technical. It doesn’t mean a return to dogmatism or to the construction of what Kant called transcendental illusions (more on that below). It doesn’t mean we stop doing what’s sometimes called ideology critique or that we stop eviscerating the ethical, political, and moral injustices wrought by this or that sociopolitical order.

Rather, the critical project here refers simply to the transition philosophers enacted in their post-Kantian mode through emphasizing the transcendental project of epistemology rather than the cosmological project of metaphysics. That is, Whitehead pursues a cosmological understanding of world over and beyond the Kantian notion of world as regulative ideal used to clarify and systematize the ideas of reason. The critical project is in some sense a reduction of the World to a merely regulative world.

On this point, I recommend Sean Gaston’s The Concept of World from Kant to Derrida. Gaston gives us a helpful and compelling discussion of the shift from cosmological accounts of world, as found for example in Plato and Aristotle, to the accounts of world as a regulative ideal we find in Kant. The details are too numerous to outline here (and note that Gaston may be too hasty in his account of the of the cosmological world). However, suffice to say that any speculative philosophy worth its salt must acknowledge the difference between the cosmological and the regulative and overcome it, lest we slip back into the dogmatism of pre-critical (i.e., pre-Kantian) metaphysics. (Metaphysics and epistemology should always be conducted in tandem for just this reason.)

The risk is that instead of producing a new realist metaphysics, as is Whitehead’s aim, we instead produce another in a long line of what Kant called transcendental illusions, which Gaston helpfully describes as any “subjective view that takes itself as an objective summation of things as they really are” (10). Gaston continues to describe the challenge before us: “Before critical philosophy it was easier to speak of the world as something ontologically given. It was also easier to speak of a concept of world in general on this basis. Kant implies that there can be no concept of world in these terms and that we must use the idea of the world in general within the epistemological limitations and possibilities of reasoning” (17).

Whitehead’s challenge, which I share, is to reconsider the possibility of a cosmological account of world beyond human reason. (Note here that for Kant the issue was never a question about the existence of a reality independent from or external to human thought but whether or not we could ever give an adequate account of such a reality.) This I take it is also the aim of those of us interested Speculative Realism, New Materialism, and so on. Anyway, go read Craig’s post. It’s really quite helpful.

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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