I just finished reading Isabelle Stengers’ great book Cosmopolitiques (originally published in seven brief volumes, now available in two paperbacks; unfortunately, it has not yet been translated into English). It’s a dense and rich book, of something like 650 pages, and it’s forced me to rethink a lot of things. I’ve said before that I think Stengers is our best guide to the “science wars” of the last decade or two, and more generally, to the philosophy of science. In Cosmopolitiques, she massively extends and expands upon what she wrote in earlier books like The Invention of Modern Science.

Stengers, like Bruno Latour, wants us to give up the claim to absolute supremacy that is the greatest legacy of post-Enlightenment modernity. The point is not to abandon science, nor to see it (in cultural-relativist terms) as lacking objective validity. The problem is not with science’s actual, particular positive claims; but rather with its pretensions to universality, its need to deny the validity of all claims and practices other than its own. What Stengers, rightly, wants to take down is the “mobilization” of science as a war machine, which can only make its positive claims by destroying all other discourses and points of view: science presenting itself as rational and as objectively “true,” whereas all other discourses are denounced as superstitious, irrational, grounded in mere “belief,” etc. Stengers isn’t opposing genetics research, for instance, but she is opposing the claim that somehow the “truth” of “human nature” can be found in the genome and nowhere else. She’s opposing Edward O. Wilson’s “consilience” (with its at proclamation that positive science can and will replace psychology, literature, philosophy, religion, and all other “humanistic” forms of knowledge) and Steven Pinker’s reductive, naive and incredibly arrogant and pretentious account of “how the mind works”; not to mention the absurd efforts of “quantitative” social scientists (economists, political scientists, and sociologists) to imagine themselves as arriving at “truth” by writing equations that emulate those of physics.

Stengers wants to understand science in the specificity of its practices, and thereby to reject its transcendent claims, its claims to foundational status which are always made by detaching it from its actual, concrete practices. She defines her own approach as, philosophically, a “constructivist” one. Constructivism in philosophy is non-foundationalist: it denies that truth somehow comes first, denies that it is just there in the world or in the mind. Instead, constructivism looks at how truths are produced through various processes and practices. This does not mean that truth is merely a subjective, human enterprise, either: the practices and processes that produce truths are not just human ones. (Here, Stengers draws profitably upon Whitehead, about whom she has written extensively). For modern science, the constructivist question is to determine how this practice is able (unlike most other human practices, at least) to produce objects that have lives of their own, as it were, so that they remain “answerable” for their actions in the world independently of the laboratory conditions under which they were initially elucidated. This is what makes neutrinos and microbes, for instance, different from codes of justice, or from money, or from ancestral spirits that may be haunting someone. The point of the constructivist approach is to see how these differences work, without thereby asserting that scientific objects are therefore objective, and out there in the world, while all the other sorts of objects would be merely subjective or imaginary or irrational or just inside our heads. The point is not to say that scientific objects are “socially constructed” rather than “objectively true,” but precisely to get away from this binary alternative, when it comes to considering either scientific practices and objects, or (for instance) religious practices and objects.

The other pillar of Stengers’ approach is what she calls an “ecology of practices.” This means considering how particular practices — the practices of science, in particular — impinge upon and relate to other practices that simultaneously exist. This means that the question of what science discovers about the world cannot be separated from the question of how science impinges upon the world. For any particular practice — say, for genetics today — the “ecology of practices” asks what particular demands or requirements (exigences in French, which it’s difficult to translate precisely because the cognate English word, “exigency”, sound kind of weird) are made by the practice, and what particular obligations does the practice impose upon those who practice it, make use of it, or get affected by it.

Constructivism and the ecology of practices allow Stengers to distinguish between science as a creative enterprise, a practice of invention and discovery, and science’s modernist claim to invalidate all other discourses. Actually, such a statement is too broad — for Stengers also distinguishes among various sciences, which are not all alike. The assumptions and criteria, and hence the demands and obligations, of theoretical physics are quite different from those of ethology (the study of animal behavior, which has to take place in the wild, where there is little possibility of controlling for “variables,” as well as under laboratory conditions). The obligations one takes on when investigating chimpanzees, and all the more so human beings, are vastly different from the obligations one takes on when investigating neutrinos or chemical reactions. The demands made by scientific practices (such as the demand that the object discovered not be just an “artifact” of a particular experimental setup) also vary from one practice to another. Constructivism and the ecology of practices allow Stengers to situate the relevance and the limits of various scientific practices, without engaging in critique: that is to say, without asserting the privilege of a transcendent(al) perspective on the basis of which the varying practices are judged.

Much of Cosmopolitiques is concerned with a history of physics, from Galileo through quantum mechanics. Stengers focuses on the question of physical “laws.” She looks especially at the notion of equilibrium, and the modeling of dynamic systems. Starting with Galileo, going through Newton and Leibniz, and then continuing throughout the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, there is a continual growth in the power of mathematical idealizations to describe physical systems. Physicists construct models that work under simplified conditions — ignoring the presence of friction, for instance, when describing spheres rolling down a plane (Galileo) or more generally, motion through space. They then add the effects of “perturbations” like friction as minor modifications of the basic model. Gradually, more and more complex models were developed, which allowed for more and more factors to be incorporated within the models themselves, instead of having to be left outside as mere “perturbations.” These models all assume physical “states” that can be said to exist at an instant, independently of the historical development of the systems in question; and they assume a basic condition of equilibrium, often perturbed but always returned to.

Stengers suggests that we should celebrate these accomplishments as triumphs of scientific imagination and invention. At the same time, she points up the baleful effects of these accomplishments, in terms of how they got (metaphorically) transferred to other physical and scientific realms. The success of models, expressible as physical “laws,” has to do with the particular sorts of questions 19th-century dynamics addressed (having to do with the nature of forces in finite interactions that could be treated mathematically with linear equations). The success of dynamics, however, led physicists to expect that the same procedures would be valid in answering other questions. This extension of the dynamic model beyond the field of its experimental successes, and into other realms, led to the general assumption that all physical processes could similarly be modeled in terms of instantaneous “states” and time-invariant transformations of these states. That is to say, the assumption that all physical processes follow deterministic “laws.” When the “perturbations” that deviate from the ideal cannot be eliminated empirically, this is attributed to the mere limitations of our knowledge, with the assertion that the physical world “really” operates in accordance with the idealized model, which thereby takes precedence over merely empirical observations. This is how physics moved from empirical observation to a quasi-Platonic faith in an essence underlying mere appearances.

It’s because of this underlying idealism, this illicit transference of dynamic modelling into realms that are not suited to it, that the ideology of physics as describing the ultimate nature of “reality” has taken so strong a hold on us today. Thus physicists dismiss the apparent irreversibility of time, and the increase of entropy (disorder) in any closed system, as merely artifacts of our subjectivity, which is to say our ignorance (of the fact that we do not have access to perfect and total information about the physical state of every atom). But Stengers points out the arbitrariness of the generally accepted “statistical” interpretation of entropy; she argues that it is warranted only by physicists’ underlying assumption that the ideal situation of total knowability of every individual atom’s location and path, independent of the atoms’ history of interactions, must obtain everywhere. This ideal is invoked as how nature “really” behaves, even if there is no empirical possibility of obtaining the “knowledge” that the ideal assumes.

There are similar problems in quantum mechanics. Most physicists are not content with Bohr’s injunction not to ask what is “really” going on before the collapse of quantum indeterminacy; they can’t accept that total, deterministic knowledge is an impossibility, so they have recourse to all sorts of strange hypotheses, from multiple worlds to “hidden variables.” But following Nancy Cartwright among others, Stengers suggests that the whole problem of indeterminacy and measurement in quantum mechanics is a false one. Physicists don’t like the fact that quantum mechanics forbids us in principle from having exact knowledge of every particle, as it were independently of our interaction with the particles (since we have to choose, for instance, between knowing the position of an electron and knowing its momentum — we can’t have both, and it is our interaction with the electron that determines which we do find out). But Stengers points out that the limits of our knowledge in quantum mechanics are not really any greater than, say, the limits of my knowledge as to what somebody else is really feeling and thinking. It’s only the physicists’ idealizing assumption of the world’s total knowability and total determinability in accordance with “laws” that leads them to be frustrated and dissatisfied by the limits imposed by quantum mechanics.

Now, my summary of the last two paragraphs has actually done a disservice to Stengers. Because I have restated her analyses in a Kantian manner, as a reflection upon the limits of reason. But for Stengers, such an exercise in transcendental critique is precisely what she wants to get away from; since such a critique means that once again modernist rationality is legislating against practices whose claims differ from its own. She seeks, rather, through constructivism and the ecology of practices, to offer what might be called (following Deleuze) an entirely immanent critique, one that is situated within the very field of practices that it is seeking to change. Stengers exemplifies this with a detailed account of the work of Ilya Prigogine, with whom she collaborated in the 1980s. Prigogine sought, for most of his career, to get the “arrow of time” — the irreversibility of events in time — recognized as among the fundamentals of physics. We cultural studies types tend to adopt Prigogine wholeheartedly for our own critical purposes. But Stengers emphasizes the difficulties that result from the fact that Prigogine is not critiquing physics and chemistry, but seeking to point up the “arrow of time” in such a way that the physicists themselves will be compelled to acknowledge it. To the extent that he is still regarded as a fringe figure by most mainstream scientists, it cannot be said that he succeeded. Stengers points to recent developments in studies of emergence and complexity as possibly pointing to a renovation of scientific thought, but she warns against the new-agey or high-theoretical tendency many of us outside the sciences have to proclaim a new world-view by trumpeting these scientific results as evidence: which means both translating scientific research into “theory” way too uncritically, and engaging in a kind of Kantian critique, instead of remaining within the immanence of the ecology of actual practices, with the demands they make and the obligations they impose.

The biggest question Cosmopolitiques leaves me with is precisely the one of whether it is possible to approach all these questions immanently, without bringing some sort of Kantian critique back into the picture (as I find myself unavoidably tempted to do, even when I am just trying to summarize Stengers’ arguments). One could also pose this question in reverse: whether Kantian critique (in the sense I am using it, which goes back to the Transcendental Dialectic of the First Critique, where Kant tries to use rationality to limit the pretensions of reason itself) can be rescued from Stengers’ objections to the modernist/scientific condemnation of all claims other than its own. The modernist gesture par excellence, in Stengers’ account, would be David Hume’s consignment of theology and speculative philosophy to the flames, as containing “nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Are Kant’s Antinomies and Paralogisms making essentiallly the same gesture? I regard this as a crucial question, and as an open one, something I have only begun to think about.

I have another question about Stengers’ conclusions, one that (I think) follows from that about Kantian critique. Stengers urges us (in the last section of her book) “to have done with tolerance”; because “tolerance” is precisely the condescending attitude by which “we” (scientists, secular modernists in general) make allowances for other world-views which we nonetheless refuse to take seriously. Stengers’ vision, like Latour’s, is radically democratic: science is not a transcending “truth” but one of many “interests” which constantly need to negotiate with one another. This can only happen if all the competing interests are taken seriously (not merely “tolerated”), and actively able to intervene with and against one another. To give an example that Stengers herself doesn’t use: think of the recent disputes over “Kennewick Man” — a 9,000-year-old skull discovered in 1999 near the Columbia River in Washington State. Scientists want to study the remains; Native American groups want to give the remains a proper burial. For the most part, the American press presented the dispute as one between the rational desire to increase our store of knowledge and the irrational, archaic “beliefs” of the “tribes” claiming ownership of the skull. Stengers would have us realize that such an indivious distinction is precisely an instance of scientific imperialism, and that the claims of both the scientists and the native groups — the demands they make and the obligations they feel urged to fulfill — need to be negotiated on an equal basis, that both are particular interests, and both are political: the situation cannot be described as a battle between rationality and superstition, or between “knowledge” and “belief.”

In this way, Stengers (and Latour) are criticising, not just Big Science, but also (and perhaps even more significantly) the default assumptions of post-Enlightenment secular liberalism. Their criticism is quite different from that espoused by such thinkers as Zizek and Badiou; but there is a shared rejection of the way that liberal “tolerance” (the “human face,” you might say, of multinational captial) in fact prevents substantive questions from being asked, and substantive change from happening. This is another Big Issue that I am (again) only beginning to think through, and that I will have to return to in future posts. But as regards Stengers, my real question is this: Where do Stengers’ and Latour’s anti-modernist imperatives leave us, when it comes to dealing with the fundamentalist, evangelical Christians in the United States today? Does the need to deprivilege science’s claims to exclusive truth, and to democratically recognize other social/cultural/political claims, mean, for instance, that we need to give full respect to the claims of “intelligent design” or creationism, and let them negotiate on an equal footing with the claims of evolutionary theory? To say that we shouldn’t tolerate the fundamentalists because they themselves are intolerant is no answer. And I’m not sure that to say, as I have said before, that denying the evolution of species is akin to denying the Holocaust — since both are matters of historical events, rather than of (verifiable or falsifiable) theories — I’m not sure that this answer works either. I realize I am showing my own biases here: it’s one thing to uphold the claims of disenfranchised native peoples, another to uphold the claims of a group that I think is oppressing me as much as they think I and my like are oppressing them. But this is really where the aporia comes for me; where I am genuinely uncertain as to the merits of Stengers’ arguments in comparison to the liberal “tolerance” she so powerfully despises.

14 Responses to “Cosmopolitics”

  1. Mark Crosby says:

    Looking forward to reading this over the weekend. Not sure if it’s relevant but just thought I’d mention that Sharon Begley writes in the 4/29 Wall Street Journal “Science Journal” column that “Evolutionary Psychology May Not Help Explain Our Behavior After All”. Begley concludes: “After _Adapting Minds_ [by David J Buller], it is impossible to ever again think that human behavior is the Stone Age artifact that evolutionary psychology claims”. (Oh dear, what’s next, claiming that human concepts are learned and not innate 😉

  2. Yusef Asabiyah says:

    “For modern science, the constructivist question is to determine how this practice is able (unlike most other human practices, at least) to produce objects that have lives of their own, as it were, so that they remain “answerable” for their actions in the world independently of the laboratory conditions under which they were initially elucidated. This is what makes neutrinos and microbes, for instance, different from codes of justice, or from money, or from ancestral spirits that may be haunting someone.”

    Is it really the case that scientific practice is able to produce objects that have lives of their own in a way that other human practices are not?

    What is this way? What is the character of these ‘lives of their own’ of these objects?

    What prevents Stengers from simply denying that scientific objects have this special power?

    I am interested in looking for those necessary conditions by which something may be called scientific.

    It seems to me that when Stengers says that “scientific practice is able to produce objects that have lives of their own, ” she is proposing a necessary condition for something to be considered scientific. Can she make it stand?

    ( I have only read your review of this book, not the book itself. I read with interest your other review of a Stengers book , and placed that one on my wish list, but haven’t gotten to it yet. )

  3. shaviro says:

    This is probably more a problem of my (inexact) summary of the book than anything else. As I understand her, Stengers is trying to characterize certain aspects of “scientific method” (i.e. repeatability of the results, confirmation that the results are not just an “artifact” of the scientific apparatus) in terms of what distinguishes science as a “practice,” or as a form of creativity and invention. She is trying to get at what, for scientists themselves, distinguishes science from other sorts of practices, without thereby endorsing the claim (made by scientists mostly when they are addressing public discourse, but not when they are actually involved in their own research) that science is thereby “true” in a way that no other discourses are or can be.
    I’m not sure I have answered your question, but this is the best I can put it short of quoting Stengers herself at great length.

  4. Yusef Asabiyah says:

    In this phrase, “For modern science, the constructivist question is to determine how this practice is able (unlike most other human practices, at least) to produce objects that have lives of their own…” I thought I was reading something that hinted that the objects of modern science ‘partake of enduring essence’ , and if such a hint is there in Stenger , then I believe that Stenger’s constructivist project is doomed to collapse.

  5. Isabelle Stengers says:

    Thank you for this nice review.
    About creationisme and ID – a very interesting FAQ. First, if some contemporary so-called evolutionary thinkers wanted to create a situation where “creationism” appears as the only alternative against triumphalist crude imperialism enjoying its own dismembering nastiness in the name of “science”, they would not write otherwise. So, I refuse mobilization : I am quite unable to side with them against the ennemy they so powerfully contribute to create. They appear to me as (if not more) dangerous – and with a lot more resources. Fighting creationsism is also, and first, affrirming that somehow, we desercv it, and I do think that we may well be more “efficacious” against creationisme if we taddress it as the other side of the same poor coin, together with their target. But it means that we can be part of the resistance against creationisme only if we are interested in the question of evolution (not in the name of rationality, objectivity, and all those mobilizing stuff).

  6. Lee Burge says:

    I would like to get an English translation soonest.

  7. I like Isabelle Stengers’ reply (just above). Where creationism and neo-Darwinism concur is in a certain belief about belief–that “belief” means clinging with all your might to an idea at the expense of all others. Anyone who has seen Sam Harris’s TED talks will be scared of these guys too!

    In any case I can’t wait to read the book.

  8. Pierre Godart says:

    This is my first time reading this blog and I’ve got to say that I love it.

    I would like to add that while being a great defender of the ‘strong’ science and the controlled laboratory experiment, I’ve just been through Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life and I’m very much seduced by the idea of ‘historical’ sciences. Sciences whose object is out of the laboratory reach. Gould convinced me that these sciences are just as falsifiable as classical physics but it took him 352 pages and I doubt that I can sum it up just yet.

    Now when it comes to the respect to be given to creationism or to disenfranchised native peoples, well its two completely different situations. I see them as : To accept to slow down the juggernaut that has become positive liberalism in front of the beliefs of some peoples. But when it comes to ID its more like to give up the sacred secularity of education. In the first case it is humane and humble to give up one revolutionary discovery, in the other one you just have to be a Dick Dawkins.

    Anyway I’m on my way to the bookstore.

  9. […] denna konstruktivism som Isabelle Stengers arbetat med i sin vetenskapsteori. Som Steven Shaviro skriver: Stengers wants to understand science in the specificity of its practices, and thereby to reject […]

  10. […] summary of the book (+ a response of Stengers herself) can be found on his Pinocchio Theory blog here. My own attempt to deal with Cosmopolitics has still been somewhat undetermined; I find it […]

  11. Jonah Dempcy says:

    What do you think about the ideas offered in the book Bergsonism by Gilles Deleuze? Specifically the idea of scientific method as study of space rather than time (even reducing time to a poorly conceived composite, spacetime)?

    I’m oversimplifying, but basically according to this idea, conventional science is the study of difference in degree. It is saying that science is one half or slope of the absolute, one a priori perspective or half of a pre-built ontology. The other half is duration or time, consisting of difference-in-kind, metaphysics, psyche rather than cosmos.

    Here is an excerpt of the book which discusses this idea:

    “At first sight it would seem that a difference in kind is established between two things, or rather between two tendencies. This is true, but only superficially. Let us consider the principal Bergsonian division: that between duration and space. All the other divisions, all the other dualisms involve it, derive from it, or result in it. Now, we cannot simply confine ourselves to affirming a difference in kind between duration and space. The division occurs between (1) duration, which “tends” for its part to take on or bear all the differences in kind (because it is endowed with the power of qualitatively varying with itself), and (2) space, which never presents anything but differences of degree (since it is quantitative homogeneity). There is thus not a difference in kind between the two halves of the division; the qualitative difference is entirely on one side. When we divide something up according to its natural articulations (as with proportions and figures that vary greatly from case to case), we have: on the one hand, the aspect of space, by which the thing can only ever differ in degree from other things and from itself (augmentation, diminuition); and on the other hand, the aspect of duration, by which the thing differs in kind from all others and from itself (alteration).

    “Take a lump of sugar: It has a spatial configuration. But if we approach it from that angle, all we will ever grasp are differences in degree between that sugar and any other thing. But it also has a duration, a rhythm of duration, a way of being in time that is at least partly revealed in the process of its dissolving, and that shows how this sugar differs in kind not only from other things, but first and foremost from itself. This alteration, which is one with the essence or the substance of a thing, is what we grasp when we conceive of it in terms of Duration. In this respect, Bergson’s famous formulation, ‘I must wait until the sugar dissolves’ has a still broader meaning than is given to it by its context. It signifies that my own duration, such as I live it in the impatience of waiting, for example, serves to reveal other durations that beat to other rhythms, that differ in kind from mine. Duration is always the location and the environment of differences in kind; it is even their totality and multiplicity. There are no differences in kind except in duration– while space is nothing other than the location, the environment, the totality of differences in degree. […]

    “Matter is effectively the ‘aspect’ by which things tend to present to each other, and to us, only differences in degree. Experience gives us composites. Now the state of the composite does not consist in uniting elements that differ in kind, but in uniting them in conditions such that these constituent differences in kind cannot be grasped in it. In short, there is a point of view, or rather a state of things, in which differences in kind can no longer appear. The retrograde movement of the true is not merely an illusion about the true, but belongs to the true itself. Bergson adds (dividing the composite ‘religion’ into two directions — static and dynamic religion) that in placing ourselves at a certain standpoint ‘we should perceive a series of transitions and, as it were, differences of degree, whereas really there is a radical difference in kind.’

    “The illusion, therefore, does not result only from our nature, but from the world in which we live, from the side of being that manifests itself to us in the first place. Bergson evolved, in a certain sense, from the beginning to the end of his work. The two major aspects of his evolution are the following: Duration seemed to him to be less and less reducible to a psychological experience and became instead the variable essence of things, providing the theme of a complex ontology. But, simultaneously, space seemed to him to be less and less reducible to a fiction separating us from this psychological reality, rather, it was itself grounded in being and expressed one of its two slopes, one of its two directions. The absolute, said Bergson, has two sides (aspects): spirit imbued with metaphysics and matter known by science. But the point is that science is not relative knowledge, a symbolic discipline that commends itself only by its successes or its effectiveness; science is part of ontology, it is one of ontology’s two halves. The Absolute is difference, but difference has two facets, differences in degree and differences in kind. It can, therefore, be seen that when we grasp simple differences in degree between things, when science itself invites us to see the world in this way, we are again in an absolute (‘With modern physics more and more clearly revealing to us differences in number behind our distinctions of quality…’). It is, however, an illusion. But it is only an illusion to the extent that we project the real landscape of the first slope onto the other. If the illusion can be repressed it is because of that other slope, that of duration, which gives us differences in kind corresponding in the final instance to differences of proportion as they appear in space, and already in matter and extension.”

    Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, Chapter 1: Intuition as Method, pp. 31-34

    I’m also curious to hear your thoughts on Richard Tarnas’ Archetypal Cosmology/Archetypal Astrology research which incorporates Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy, CG Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and Stanislav Grof’s transpersonal psychology, among other works.

    I can highly recommend Tarnas’ work Cosmos & Psyche in this area. It is an enjoyable quick read which takes us through the history of scientific and cultural advancements of the past 500 years vis-a-vis archetypal analysis of astrological transits. Fascinating stuff.

  12. Jonah Dempcy says:

    Here’s another text that is hopefully relevant to the discussion. The following is an excerpt from ‘On Divination and Synchronicity: The Psychology of Meaningful Chance’ by Marie-Louise von Franz:

    “The view of the world which Jung tried to bring back into focus, and on which divination basically rests, is that of synchronicity; therefore before we go into details about the problems of divination we have to remember what Jung said about synchronicity. In his Foreword to the English edition of Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching or Book of Changes, he gives a very good summary of the difference between causal and synchronistic thinking. Causal thinking is, so to speak, lineal. There is a sequence of events A, B, C, D, and you think backwards and wonder why D appears because of C, why C appears because of B, and why B appears because of A, like some kind of inner or outer event. One tries to trace back in one’s mind why these coordinate effects have worked.

    “We know that through the investigations of modern physicists it has now been proved that on the microphysical level this principle is no longer completely valid; we can no longer think of causality as absolute law, but only as a tendency or prevailing probability. So causality is shown to be a way of thinking which satisfies our mental grasp of a cluster of physical events, but dos not completely get at the core of natural laws, it only delineates general trends or possibilities. Synchronistic thinking, on the other hand, one could call field thinking, the centre of which is time.

    “Time also comes into causality since we normally think that the cause comes before the effect. In modern physics it sometimes looks as if the effect came before the cause, and therefore they try to turn it round and say that you could still call that causal; but I think Jung is right in saying that it is enlarging and twisting the idea of causality ad absurdum so far that it loses its meaning. Normally, cause always comes before effect, so there also is a lineal idea of time, before and after, with the effect always after the before.

    “Synchronistic thinking, the classic way of thinking in China, is thinking in fields, so to speak. In Chinese philosophy such thinking has been developed and differentiated much more than in any other civilization; there the question is not why has this come about, or what factor caused this effect, but what likes to happen together in a meaningful way in the same moment? The Chinese always ask: “What tends to happen together in time?” So the centre of their field concept would be a time moment on which are clustered the events A,B,C,D, and so on. [There is a diagram in the book showing points distributed in a field instead of linearly in sequence as before. -Jonah]

    “Richard Wilhelm puts it very well in his Introduction to the I Ching where he speaks of the complex of events which occur at a certain time moment.

    “In our causal thinking we have made a big separation between psychic events and physical events, and we only watch to see how physical events produce, or have a causal effect upon, each other and on psychological events. Right up to the 19th century the idea still persisted in the sciences (and it still does in those less developed) that only physical causes have physical effects and psychic causes psychological effects; for instance, Freud’s way of thinking: ‘This woman is neurotic and has an idiosyncrasy as the result of a childhood trauma.’ That would be the same kind of thinking but transposed onto the psychological level.

    “The question now being asked is whether there are interactions between those two lines. Is there something like a psychic cause for physical events and vice versa? That is a problem of psychosomatic medicine. Interactions between those two chains of causality can be proved: [… edited for brevity -Jonah …]

    “The synchronistic, i.e., the Chinese way of thinking, however, is completely different. It is a differentiation of primitive thinking in which no difference has ever been made between psychological and physical facts. In their question as to what likes to occur together, one can bring in bother inner and outer facts. For the synchronistic way of thinking it is even essential to watch both areas of reality, the physical and the psychic, and to notice that at the moment when one had these and these thoughts or these and these dreams — which would be psychological events — such and such outer physical events happened; i.e. there was a complex of physical and psychological events. Though causal thinking also poses the problem of time in some form because of the before and after, the problem of time is much more central in the synchronistic way of thinking because there it is the key moment — a certain moment of time — which is the uniting fact, the focal point for the observation of this complex of events.

    “In modern Western science, algebraic means are used to describe the probabilities of the sequence of events — algebraic matrices of different forms and algebraic functions and curves. The Chinese also use mathematics for the description of their laws of synchronicity. They use something like mathematical matrices but not algebraic abstractions; they use the individual natural integers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), so one could say that the mathematics of this Chinese way of thinking would be the different qualifications one can draw from the series of natural integers, the common laws which one can abstract from them. One uses the 3, 4, and 5 to grasp a cluster of events in mathematical form.

    “The basis of the science of mathematics, or the scientific mathematics of synchronistic thinking, is therefore the series of natural integers, and one finds that in all techniques of divination. The simplest form of divination is binary: hit or miss. One throws a coin and gets heads or tails and accordingly decides whether one will go or not to the Rigi, or whichever direction you are undetermined about. Hit or miss is the basic idea of all divination but in different civilizations there are differentiated techniques by which to read the situation better at a certain time moment.

    “The Western way of thinking is an extraverted orientation, namely first to look at the events and then to abstract a mathematical model. The Eastern, or Chinese way, is to use an intuitive model to read the event, namely natural integers. They turn first to the event of throwing heads or tails, that is a psychic and psycho-physical event. The question of the diviner is psychic, while the event is that the coin falls either heads or tails, from which the further outer and inner events can be read. So it is an outlook completely complementary to ours. […]

    “In the market place of every Chinese town there wer e a few I Ching priests who would throw coins for you or take the yarrow stalks, and get answers to your questions, but then it was forbidden. In 1960 Mao thought of slightly releasing the rationalistic political pressure on the masses and found out that there were two possibilities: either to give more rice, or to allow the use of the I Ching, and all those whom he consulted told him that the people were more eager to use the I Ching again than to get more food. Spiritual food, and the I Ching was their spiritual food, was more important to them, so it was allowed for I think one or two years and then he strangled it again. [ …]

    “The great merit of the I Ching is due to two remarkable geniuses, namely the legendary King Wen and the Duke of Chou, who developed what was originally a primitive oracle system into a complete philosophic Weltanschauung. They treated the oracle and its ethical consequences philosophically; they thought about its psychological consequences and presuppositions and through that it has in China become the basis of a very deep and very broad Weltanschauung. Jung writes in his paper on synchronicity that this has only happened in China, but I chanced to discover that it has also happened in Western Nigeria. There were certain medicine men there who by their oracle technique — geomancy in their case — developed a whole religious philosophy [… she continues to discuss Mayan civilization as a potential third which differentiated this kind of thought beyond repressed or so-called ‘left-hand’ prognostications as we in the West have, with our relatively undeveloped faculties in this area. -Jonah]

    “Let us therefore stay for the moment with the Chinese way of thinking. There is an excellent book on this by the sociologist Marcel Granet, La Pensee Chinoise, who says that the Chinese never thought in quantities but always in terms of qualitative emblems. Jung would have said ‘symbols,’ and I will use that term so as to make it simpler for us. According to the Chinese, numbers describe regular relationships of events and things, exactly as they do for us. We try with mathematical algebraic formulae to describe regular relationships. As a category, causality is the idea for discovering such relationships, and for the Chinese too, numbers express the regular relationship of things — not in their quantitative way, but in their qualitative hierarchy they qualify the concrete orderedness of things. We could not disagree with that for it is more or less the same as with us, except that their accent is on the quality level.

    “But it goes further in China, where they believe that the universe probably has an ultimate basic numerical rhythm. The same question arises with us now, for in modern physics it is thought that one might possibly find one basic rhythm of the universe which would explain all the different phenomena, but for us that is at present just a kind of speculative idea held by some modern physicists. The Chinese simply assumed that this rhythm of all reality existed, that it was a number pattern, and that all relationships of things with each other in all areas of outer and inner life therefore mirror this same basic number pattern in a form conceived as a rhythm.

    “Until the end of the 19th century, the Chinese also had a much more energetic and dynamic outlook on the world than we had, believing that everything was energy in flux. Actually we now think the same but we arrived at the idea much later and by scientific means. Their primary assumption from all time was that everything is outwardly and inwardly a flux of energy, which follows certain basic and recurring numerical rhythms. In all areas of events one would always finally arrive at this mirror image, the basic rhythm — a matrix — of the cosmos. For those who are not so mathematically minded, a matrix is any regular array of numbers in several columns; there may be any number of rows and columns, but always in a rectangular arrangement.

    [ Diagram of Lo Shou: ]

    [ Diagram of Ho-tou:

    [ Source: ]

    “For the Chinese one of the basic matrices, or arrangements of the universe, was a quadrangular matrix — a magic square called the Lo Shou (Figure 2), which sets the basic rhythm. It is a so-called magic square because whichever way you add up the figures the result is always 15, and it is also the only magic square which has only three elements in each row or column. So it is really a mathematically unique thing. There are many magic squares with more rows and more possibilities of addition, but the simplest is this one and it has only eight solutions. I would say it is one of the most highly symmetrical number matrices to be found in arithmetic. The Chinese discovered it intuitively and for them it represented a basic mirror or rhythmic image of the universe seen in its time aspect. I will return to that later.

    “The Chinese had two ideas or aspects of time: namely timeless time or eternity, unchanging eternity, with superimposed on it cyclic time. We live normally, with our consciousness, in cyclic time, according to Chinese ideas, but there is an eternal time — une dure’e creatrice, to use an expression of Bergson’s — underneath, which sometimes interferes with the other. Ordinary Chinese time is cyclical and follows this pattern. They arranged the innermost chambers of their imperial palace on such a pattern; also all musical instruments were tuned according to it, all dances and all protocol, as well as what a Mandarin and what a commoner had to do at the funeral of his father. In every detail this number pattern always played a role, because it was thought to be the basic rhythm of reality; therefore in different variations in music, in protocol, in architecture, everywhere this same pattern was always put in the centre.

    “The underlying numerical order of eternity is called the Ho-tou (Figure 3), a mandala and also a cross. There is again 5 in the middle. One counts 1, 2, 3, 4, and then moves to the middle 5, then 6, 7, 8, 9, and then back to 10 — 10 would really be in the middle. One must always cross and come back to the middle. Actually it is the movement of a musical dance because it always emanates into four and contracts into the middle — it has a systole and diastole movement. The Lo Shou is the world of time in which we live, and underneath is always the eternity rhythm, the Ho-tou. That idea underlay the whole cultural and scientific application of mathematics in China. Let us compare it with our viewpoint.

    “I want to read to you in detail what the well-known mathematician, Herman Weyl, says about it in his book Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science. You know that until about 1930 the great and passionate occupation of most mathematicians was the discussion of the fundamentals. They hoped, as has been the fashion nowadays, to rediscuss the fundamentals of all science. But the famous German mathematician, David Hilbert, created a new construction of the whole building of mathematics, so to speak, and hoped that this would contain no internal contradictions. There would be a few basic axioms on which one could build up all branches of mathematics: topology, geometry, algebra and so on; it was to be a big building with solid foundations and few axioms. That was in 1926, and Hilbert was even bold enough to say: ‘I think that with my theory the discussion of fundamentals has been forever removed from mathematics.’

    “Then in 1931 came another very famous mathematician, Kurt Goedel, who took a few of those basic axioms and showed that one could reach complete contradictions with them: starting from the same axioms, one could prove something and its complete opposite. In other words, he showed that the basic axioms contain an irrational factor which could not be eliminated. Nowadays in mathematics one must not say that obviously this is so-and-so, and that therefore that and that is also so, but: ‘I assume that it is so-and-so, and if so then that and that follows.’ The axioms must be presented as assumptions, or must be postulated, after which a logical deduction can be made, but one cannot infer that what has been assumed or postulated could not be contradicted or doubted as an absolute truth.

    “In order to make such assumptions, mathematics are generally formulated in such as terms as: ‘It is self-evident,’ or ‘It is reasonable to think’ — that is how mathematicians posit an axiom nowadays, and from there they build up. From then on there is no contradiction, only one conclusion is possible, but in ‘it is reasonable to assume,’ that is where the dog lies buried, as we say. Goedel showed that, and thus threw over the whole thing. Strangely enough that did not reopen the discussion of fundamentals. From then on, as Weyl says, nobody touched that problem, they just felt awkward and scratched behind their ears and said, ‘Don’t let’s discuss fundamentals, there’s nothing doing: it is reasonable to assume, we cannot go beyond that,’ and there the situation rests today.

    “Weyl, however, went through a very interesting development. At first he was very much attracted by the physicist, Werner Heisenberg. He was very much of a Pythagorean and was attracted by the numinosity and irrationality of natural integers. Then he became fascinated by David Hilbert, and in the middle of his life had a period during which he became more and more attracted by Hilbertian logic and dropped the problem of numbers, treating them, erroneously as I think, as simply posited quantities. He says, for instance, that natural integers are just as though one took a stick and made a row of marks, which one then named conventionally; there was nothing more behind them, they were simply posited by the human mind and there was nothing mysterious about them; it was ‘reasonable and self-evident’ that one could do that. But at the end of his life he added (only to the German edition of his book on the philosophy of mathematics, and shortly before his death) this passage:

    “‘The beautiful hope we had of freeing the world of the discussion of fundamentals was destroyed by Kurt Goedel in 1931 and the ultimate basis and real meaning of mathematics are still an open problem. Perhaps one makes mathematics as one does music and it is just one of man’s creative activities, and though the idea of an existing completely transcendental world is the basic principle of all formalism, each mathematical formalism has at every step the characteristics of being incomplete [which means that every mathematical theory is consistent in itself but is incomplete, at the borders are questions which are not self-evident, are not clear, and are incomplete -von Franz] in so far as there are always problems, even of a simple arithmetical nature, which can be formulated in the frame of a formalism, but which cannot be decided by deduction within the formalism itself.’

    “That is put in a mathematician’s complicated way; put simply, it means that I daresay it is self-evident, by which I posit something irrational, because it is not self-evident. Now one could make an uroboros movement and say: ‘But from my deduction I can re-prove my beginning.’ You cannot! You cannot from the deductive formalism afterwards deduce a proof, except by a tautology, which naturally is not allowed, even in mathematics.

    [quoting Weyl again:]

    “‘We are therefore not surprised that in an isolated phenomenal existence a piece of nature surprises us by its irrationality and that one cannot analyse it completely. As we have seen, physics therefore projects everything which exists onto the background of possibility or probability.’

    “That is important because it sums up in one word what modern science does. In other words, any fragment of phenomenal existence, let us say these spectacles, contains something irrational which one cannot exhaust in physical analysis. Why the electrons of these millions and millions of atoms of which my spectacles consist are in this space and not in another, I cannot explain; therefore through physics, when it comes to a single event in nature, there is no completely valid explanation.

    [ Note: Deleuze addresses the problem of ‘why this and not that’ as a false problem in the book Bergsonism, owing to the confusion between which came first, being or possibility. -Jonah ]

    “The single event is always irrational, but in physics one proceeds by projecting this onto the background of a possible, i.e. one makes a matrix. For instance, in these spectacles there are so many atoms and so many particles of them, and so on, and out of a whole group one can make a mathematical formula in which one could even count the particles — not 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, but by projecting onto the background of what is possible. That is why these matrices are nowadays used in engineering and so on, because one can cope with the uncountable; they provide an instrument with which to cope with things which cannot be counted singly. Weyl says:

    “‘It is not surprising that any bit of nature we may choose [these spectacles or anything -von Franz] has an ultimate irrational factor which we cannot and never will explain and that we can only describe it, as in physics, by projecting it onto the background of the possible.’

    “But then he continues:

    “‘But it is very surprising that something which the human mind has created itself, namely the series of whole natural integers [I told you that he has this erroneous idea that the human mind created 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, by making dots -von Franz], and which is so absolutely simple and transparent to the constructive spirit, also contains an aspect of something abysmal we cannot grasp.

    “That is the confession of one of the most remarkable — because one of the most philosophically oriented — modern mathematicians, Hermann Weyl. We can naturally say that we do not believe what he believed, namely that the natural integers simply represent the naming of posited dots, therefore to us it is not surprising that natural integers are abysmal and beyond our grasp. He believed that, and that is why he could not understand. It is incredible that it should be so, but it is so; in other words, because the natural integers have something irrational (he called it abysmal) the fundamentals of mathematics are not solid, because the whole of mathematics is ultimately based on the givenness of the series of natural integers.

    “Now precisely because numbers are irrational and abysmal — to quote Weyl — they are a good instrument with which to grasp something irrational. If one uses numbers to grasp the irrational, one uses irrational means to get hold of something irrational, and that is the basis of divination. They took those irrational, abysmal numbers which nobody has so far understood, and tried to guess reality, or their connection with reality — but into the divination problem there also enters the problem of time.

    “Divination has to do with synchronicity, and Jung has in so many words called the synchronistic phenomena parapsychological phenomena. I want you to keep that in mind because, as you know, in modern science physicists and psychologists are now trying to find the union of physics and psychology in the area of parapsychological phenomena. They have a hunch, or guess, that parapsychological phenomena might give us a clue to the union of physis and psyche. Now in divination, and I am here referring specifically to number divination, one would therefore also have to deal with the parapsychological phenomenon, which at the same time is linked up with the number. Jung has called number the most primitive expression of the spirit and so we have now to go into what we understand, from the psychological viewpoint, by the word spirit.”

    Marie Louise von Franz, On Divination and Synchronicity: The Psychology of Meaningful Chance, Lecture 1, pp. 7-18

    What follows is an extensive discussion of Jung’s concept of spirit. I would love to excerpt it all here but I fear it would exhaust the casual reader. In any case, hopefully these excerpts of von Franz’ essay provide some interesting food for thought.

  13. I realize this is an older post – recently revived by a tweet from Levi Bryant – but a very interesting topic to me. I have read only part of Cosmopolitics I, but have read much of Stengers’s other work, and of course I come to her by way of Latour, so I am already sympathetic. I don’t have anything to add to the philosophy, but I wanted to offer an anecdote regarding the creationism debate.
    I grew up in Kansas, left breifly and then returned to get my Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology at KU. Kansas is known in part for having, in the late 1990s to early 2000s, banned the teaching of evolution in public schools. The State Board of Education went back and forth for a few years as different officials were elected or ousted based on their stance toward evolution – one year it was banned, the next the ban was lifted, then it was banned again. I think the current status is that it is not banned, and this has been the case for several years now – the controversy seems to have died down. In any case, while I was back in Kansas at KU, there was a dcoumentary that was produced called “A Flock of Dodos” which was about the evolution controversy and the ban. I went to the inaugural showing on campus – got a dodo pin to prove it – and initially I was very enthusiastic about the film, since I think evolution ought to be taught in schools. However, as I sat in the back of the auditorium and watched as the film progressed, I became more and more disgusted by it. The “flock of dodos” was, of course, the State Board of Education that banned the teaching of evolution. Throughout the movie, these people were ridiculed and taunted for their beliefs. It was truly awful, and by the end I actually felt sorry for them. The whole film seemed to be designed to degrade the people who banned evolution and to make those of us who do believe in evolution feel superior, smarter, and generally more civilized. It played very well on the KU campus – being a very liberal, intellectual atmosphere. I don’t think it got much attention beyond that, which is probably good because it paints a generally very poor picture of Kansas – on the one hand, a flock of dodos and on the other a group of self-righteous liberal-scientific snobs.
    Granted, this is an extreme and even intolerant example, but it’s out there, nonetheless. I like Stengers’ approach – I think she points the way toward a better approach to the relationship between science and the broader public. I also think a lot of good methods and theories have come out of it – including Latour’s work, but also Sarah Whatmore, John Law, and others.

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