The Rubicon Has Been Crossed

June 21, 2012 § 8 Comments


[Image: Magdalena Jetelová]

There is a curious moment in Modes of Thought (1968) where Whitehead writes, “The distinction between men and animals is in one sense only a difference in degree. But the extent of the degree makes all of the difference. The Rubicon has been crossed” (p. 27). The question that always strikes me when reading this passage concerns exactly what worlds the “Rubicon” is connecting. Where — or amidst what — were beings situated before the Rubicon was crossed? What kind of ecology are humans situated amidst after having crossed the Rubicon? What is the Rubicon itself made from — what kind of structure does it have? Where did it come from?

These are all questions I ask in the spirit of reaching better questions. And if we’re serious about pursuing these questions in the Whiteheadian mode we are constrained in the kinds of answers we can give. First, the difference of the being who has “crossed the Rubicon” ought to be one of degree rather than kind. In other words, we are attempting to understand what crossing the Rubicon means without bifurcating nature — of creating a split between the being that attempts to know nature and the nature which is attempted to be known — and this involves addressing some further problems.

The primary issue emerges right away since “crossing the Rubicon” seems to imply that something significant has happened with the human (even if whatever that something is turns out not to be unique to humans after all). The phrase “crossing the Rubicon” itself invokes the likelihood of something like the Cartesian Cogito, Kant’s transcendental subjectivity and the synthetic unity of apperception, or the Heideggerian Dasein. But what is clear from Whitehead’s critique of the bifurcation of nature is that each of these three options is not really what we are looking for since the Cogito, Transcendental Subject, and Dasein, all posit a rift unique to the human-world relation, and Whitehead will have none of it.

The critique of the bifurcation of nature, in my reading, is primarily a critique of the split between primary and secondary qualities, and subsequently a critique of the human world-dualism exhibited by much of philosophy and science since the enlightenment (a dualism Whitehead notes mostly came to an end after Darwin and the post-Newtonian physics of the early twentieth century cf. the introduction to Process and Reality). To be sure, there are moments where Whitehead does address Descartes, to a less frequent extent Kant, and never to my knowledge Heidegger. Instead, Whitehead’s main targets are more frequently the British Empiricists, and in particular John Locke.

Whitehead’s reformulation of Lockean empiricism leads to a positive account of what Whitehead calls “prehension,” a general metaphysical principle that reformulates notions of aesthetics, causality, and perception. It is through prehension that Whitehead sees the human as “a difference only in degree” from other living beings. With prehension, Whitehead posits that feeling — or affectivity, we might say today — is active in all casual relations. Thus the human experience of the world is of a more complex nature than other beings, but is structurally similar to all other beings as well. What is not clear from Whitehead is whether or not we get a positive description of what the human is after the Rubicon has been crossed. And this still leaves the question unanswered: What is the Rubicon? What does it connect? Where does it take us?

A tentative answer may be that the Kantian thing-in-itself does not emerge as a result of the transcendental subjectivity of the human alone, but is in fact a property of things in general (as some of the object-oriented philosophers would have it). In Whitehead I don’t think we find things-in-themselves — either as exclusive aporias that emerge within the structure of the human being or otherwise — and instead tend to think that what things are, for Whitehead, have everything to do with their relationship to other things (even if never fully determined by those other things). The question of what a things is is a crucial one since understanding what things are seems to have everything to do with what the Rubicon is and what the strange worlds it connects are. 

I would venture to suggest that the Rubicon is the link between the (always mediated) experience of the empirical world of some-being(s) and the immanent character of the human capacities we call reason, imagination, and creativity; all of which seem to be related in significant ways to the human capacity to take up time as a datum within experience in a way that’s not readily available to all beings. Certainly reason, imagination, and creativity, have been suggested as the unique powers possessed by the human before (of course Whitehead and Heidegger are both very concerned with the relationship between time and being), but my own interest in what the Rubicon is concerns giving a positive account of how the human mode of these capacities emerges within the context of a cosmos that is always already qualitative and affective by virtue of the aesthetic structure of causality. For me these are important political questions.

In other words, how is the ecology of the human — having crossed the Rubicon — unique in ways that need unique modes of attention with respect to the ecologies of other beings? Further, how does the human ecology connect with those other ecologies? The central goal of ecological ethics today is to understand not just how beings live, evolve, and die alongside one another, but that there are whole interior worlds of beings living, evolving, and dying alongside one another. There is thus huge value in asking these kinds of speculative questions — questions which imply that “The World” as a hegemonic singular is now in the rearview mirror, left behind in a town called Modernity (which, as it turns out, is a rather pedestrian little suburb sitting alongside a much more immense metropolitan cosmos). What we have instead are multiple interlocking ecological worlds only ever partially available to one another where viruses, symbionts, bacteria, predators, and companion species are obtusely breaking one another open; from a certain perspective the situation looks like an ongoing ontological car-jacking, except the cars, criminals, and victims are constantly turning into one another.

Perhaps the human’s unique role in all of this can be to turn back from the other side of the Rubicon and organize a collective that takes the longview into account — including time, reason, imagination, and creativity to compose what Isabelle Stengers calls a Cosmopolitics. Maybe crossing the Rubicon is, then, about moving slowly and tentatively, taking time to speculate and imagine, experimenting and reasoning, trying to be vivid instead of concise, and then trying to be concise instead of vivid. Crossing the Rubicon is primarily about learning how to think ecologically, about taking coexistence as an ontological principle, and perhaps making some good art along the way.

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§ 8 Responses to The Rubicon Has Been Crossed

  • I think there is an elephant in the room here. Just before the line you quote in Modes of Thought, Whitehead says “In mankind, the dominant dependence on bodily functioning seems still there. And yet the life of a human being receives its worth, its importance, from the way in which unrealized ideals shape its purposes and tinge its actions” (27). He is giving us a hint about the essence of the human: the human is that being capable of actualizing its own ideals. In other words, we not only feel the creative freedom of the universe as an element in our individual concrescence (like all other occasions), we grasp this freedom as a fact constitutive of our very selves. It is a difference in degree that may as well be a difference in kind. Other occasions are “free” to the extent that they are distinct realizations of the creative advance into novelty; but only the human knows that it is free, only the human can withdraw from time and glimpse into the eternal mind of God to envisage as yet unrealized values. Other beings receive their values without conscious decision. Humans can make their own values. What is really characteristic of our special sort of freedom is our capacity for good and evil. Does it make sense to conceive of evil in the non-human universe? It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me. Granted, some, like Nietzsche, would say these categories, good and evil, make no sense in the human universe, either. Nietzsche is brilliant, but I don’t think civilization, be it modern or non-modern, can survive without fully accepting the responsibility of the knowledge of good and evil. We are free and we know it.

    Whitehead goes on in the next paragraph of MoT to offer a very ancient typology of four “aggregations of actuality,” or what might be called forms of society: (1) inorganic actualities, dominated by the statistical average, (2) vegetation, dominated by growth and survival, (3) animal actualities, possessed of full blown emotionality, and in some higher order cases, ethicality, (4) human actualities, where for the first time full blown morality and religion appear. Whitehead admits that something like morality is already present in other mammals, but “religion” is uniquely human. What is religion? We might take a look at another text of his, Religion in the Making (I’ve done a little research on this here:, but in MoT he suggests it has something to do with “[emphasizing] the unity of ideal inherent in the universe” (28). Religion, in other words, is humanity’s attempt to freely and consciously participate in the divine love (Eros) luring all things toward greater and greater expressions of Beauty.

    I’ve just finished reading Schelling’s last published work (1809, two years after Hegel’s Phenomenology, and something of a response), considered by most Schellingians to be his masterpiece, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom. Its a short work, well worth the read. He does something very interesting in this text, situating human beings at the apex of nature for sure, but not in the way we Moderns are used to. Nature, and not the human, is the original transcendental subject. Humanity is the most archetypal product of nature’s subjectivity. It is a very complex picture that he tries to paint, involving a God who suffers, a philosophical soul who rises to God’s suffering, and the destiny of the universe driven by Love (you’ve heard similar stories in Teilhard, and indeed in Whitehead)… I can only leave you a small sample here. Schelling writes, “this dark principle [the capacity for evil] is active in animals as well as in all other natural beings, yet it is still not born into the light in them as it is in man: it is not spirit and understanding but blind craving and desire; in short, no fall, no separation of principles is possible here where there is still no absolute or personal unity. The conscious and not conscious are unified in animal instinct only in a certain and determinate way which for that very reason is unalterable. For just on that account, because they are only relative expressions of unity, they are subject to it, and the force active in the ground retains the unity of principles befitting them always in the same proportion. Animals are never able to emerge from unity, whereas man can voluntarily tear apart the eternal bond of forces.” Schelling then quotes his theosophical calibrator Fr. Baader: “…it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals” (40/373).

    • When Schelling talks about the severing of the principles, he is talking about the dark and light principles of Being itself. These are ontological categories that structure everything in existence. Darkness is the contractive force, that which withdraws; light is the expansive force, that which reveals. In the human, these ontological forces seem to become capable of disequilibrium as a result of our freedom. We can attempt to elevate the dark over the light, which can never ultimately succeed, but in the attempt, we become fallen. Being itself seems to rupture and fall to pieces. The human-caused ecological crisis is still perfectly “natural,” but indeed it seems that one natural being has fallen and is taking vast swaths of earth with it into the depths of non-existence.

  • […] Adam/Knowledge-Ecology just posted a fine reflection on the place of the human in nature. Below is my response. […]

  • sam says:

    This was superduper fun to read, Adam. Like a good mystery or SF novel, you stayed with a weird question: What is the Rubicon? I like your idea of crossing the Rubicon as a cosmopolitical practice. That political tone is in the metaphor.

    When Julius Ceasar crossed the Rubicon, he did so illegally and thereby initiated a military encounter that eventually led to the establishment of the Roman Empire. Do you think Whitehead could be saying that all beings have agency and thus some capacity for politics, community, etc., yet humans are unique in our capacity for imperialist politics, or more generally, our capacity for sovereign control? In other words, does our unique capacity to do cosmopolitics rest on our capacity to short-circuit or suspend our ecological relations? Are we able to practice cosmopolitics because of some imperialistic capacity that alienates us from our companion species and other things? I would say yes.

    All this is just to support your definition of crossing the Rubicon as a cosmopolitical practice. I’m just affirming the darkness of the Ceasar allusion… the D&G “war machines” of cosmopolitics. Unlike Mark Antony, I come to praise Ceasar, not to bury him!

    • I like the sound of this, Sam. The unique capacity of human beings is “to short-circuit or suspend our ecological relations.” This sounds similar to what I outlined above about our capacity for good and evil. I wonder about something like cancer, though. Don’t cancerous cells also suspend their ecological relations by replicating blindly? This seems to undermine the extent to which such behavior is uniquely human… Might we need to bring the notion of “freedom” into the picture to distinguish what is unique about human imperialism?

  • Wetwiring says:

    […] The Rubicon Has Been Crossed, Adam Robbert. […]

  • I was just curious, would it be fruitful to implicate Heidegger here, namely his use of the concept of the Ur-sprung as found in the Introduction to Metaphysics, if even only to sign-post that this is a significant departure from him? Are there parallels in crossing the Rubicon with the original leap of Being which is also originary and constitutive of Being? I think there are some similarities, but I think the ecological approach is more fecund and compelling as it does not hypostatize the principle of this crossing as originary, rather it seems to “un-ask the question”, which seems in line with the suggestion I think we would do well to heed – less Heidegger, not more.

  • […] of the difference. The Rubicon has been crossed” (27). I have written about my fascination with the Rubicon analogy before, but I never thought about it alongside of the airplane analogy from Process and Reality until […]

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