Distributed Whitehead Network

(This post is weeks overdue; let me try to finish it quickly. More and better on Whitehead later, I promise).

Thanks to the Distributed Whitehead Network, I was able to access, live, the streaming webcasts of three recent symposia on the theme of “Whitehead Today” (and simultaneously contribute to discussion via a chat room). For lack of time, I will only comment on the first symposium here.

I’ve written many times on this blog about my enthusiasm for Whitehead (especially here, here, and here). I also have an article about Whitehead in relation to Kant(warning: fairly academic in manner) (forthcoming in some anthology or other) which is available for download here. But enough self-citation; I was grateful to the Whitehead Today symposia for the way they brought me back to some of the perplexities, or unresolved issues, I have both with understanding Whitehead’s thought, and with figuring out just how he might be relevant today, both generally and (here’s the self-citation again, sorry) in my own work.

The first symposium, at Stanford, featured Isabelle Stengers, whose great book on Whitehead (published in France in 2002 and alas, still untranslated into English) was my own introduction to his thought. Stengers’ talk was less a summary of the book — which (at 550 pages or so) is too varied and capacious to be summarized briefly — than a discussion of why and how Whitehead might matter to us, now; what his fine metaphysical distinctions and abstruse vocabulary (ripe for scholasticization, I fear) contribute to contemporary arguments and discussions.

In addition, there were two “respondents,” neither of whose talks were particularly useful in actually coming to grips with either Whitehead or Stengers. Donna Haraway talked about dogs, and in particular about her relationship with her own dog: this was all quite wonderful in itself — refreshingly nutty, and at the same time surprisingly cogent and incisive just when you thought it was going to drift off into the aether. Haraway was particularly good on the way that the human-dog relationship cannot just be one of domination and instrumentality, but was a true partnership; while at the same time (in rejection of animal-rights activism) did necessarily have to involve a hierarchy, and ultimately a human power of life and death, over the dog. But, although Haraway proclaimed her love of Whitehead, linked the human-dog relationship to Whitehead’s notion of “societies” (of which more below), none of this had all that much to do with Whitehead’s thought, or Stengers’ articulation of it.

The second respondent, Richard Rorty, basically said (in fatuous tones) that Whitehead was worthless, because (leaving aside Whitehead’s metaphysics, which is what Rorty does, and which is pretty much equivalent to, say, taking account of Einstein while leaving aside his physics, or taking account of Marx while leaving aside his economics and politics), all he could get out of Whitehead was that Whitehead’s ruminations might make somebody who was depressed (by the death of a loved one, in particular: since Rorty biographically attributed Whitehead’s turn from mathematical logic to metaphysics to grief over the death of his son in the First World War) feel a bit better. Rorty added that this was merely a replication of what Wordsworth and Shelley had already done a century before Whitehead. Presumably what Rorty was referring to was Whitehead’s idea of “objective immortality.” What this comes down to, ignoring its metaphysical content (which is a highly original way of thinking about relations — about how things connect to one another — and about how these connections perpetuate themselves over time), is the common idea that as long as living people still think about a dead loved one, still hold him or her in their memory, the deceased person is not truly, or not entirely, dead). This latter commonplace is apparently the only content that Rorty is able to discern in Whitehead, Wordsworth, or Shelley. Such an inanely reductive “reading,” if one can even call it that, is woefully inadequate to understanding either poetic texts or metaphysical ones. I fail to understand why anybody takes Rorty seriously as a thinker at this point.

Stengers’ talk focused on what it meant for Whitehead to “understand” something; and how this might be relevant for theoretical debates we are embroiled in today. Whitehead, coming from a mathematical background, emphasizes the difference between “necessary conditions” and “necessary and sufficient conditions.” The crucial point is that the former does not entail the latter. There are many preconditions necessary for any phenomenon in the world, but the phenomenon generally exceeds what is given in these preconditions — something new happens in the coming-together of the necessary conditions, none of which (nor even them all together) is sufficienct for the phenomenon that arises from them.

For instance. Certain genes are necessary conditions for human behavior, including those behaviors that involve language and society. But this does not mean that these particular genes are sufficient conditions for that behavior as well. This is the problem that always comes up in genetic explanations of all sorts of human behavior; even if scientists have indeed found the genes “for” some sort of behavior (and many claims of doing so are dubious, because the research methodology is shoddy), the working of these genes does not account for the behavior (speech, altruism, homosexuality, whatever) — in itself it simply isn’t sufficient. Scientists may have explained one aspect of “human nature”; but this explanation is not enough for us to understand the behavior, which is what Whitehead says that we, as speaking and reasoning beings, “require.” For “knowing is about closed facts,” Stengers says, “facts we are able to define.” But “understanding entails for Whitehead an experience of transformative disclosure,” that goes beyond mere definition, or mere identification of necessary preconditions.

Now, this may seem to be a rather obvious critique. Where it gets interesting is where Stengers extends the argument beyond positivist science. The definition of ourselves as linguistic beings — which we find in Heidegger, Lacan, and most of the philosopies and “human sciences” of the 20th century — is subject to the same Whiteheadian criticism as genetic reductionism. “When we make language our creator,” Stengers says, “we explain away” our need for a broader understanding, our capacity to explore and realize alternatives, our non-reduction to any sort of total programming, and instead “stick again to the usual business of finding an explanation for human experience.” Finding an explanation is itself a form of blockage, a way of policing behavior, a way of shutting down alternatives — even if the explanation is (in its own terms) correct. Against this, Whitehead gives us a way to avoid letting any one explanation become exhaustive and impose its sufficiency against all the other possibilities that are out there.

5 Responses to “Distributed Whitehead Network”

  1. Dr. Spinoza says:

    It’s beginning to sound to me as though Whitehead (or at least Strenger’s version of him?) offers us a way to hold onto the distinction between knowledge and understanding (erklaren and verstehen, as Dilthey put it) without signing off on the Heidegger-Gadamer magical mystery tour.

    This, I like. And I also like that it gives us another way into a non-positivistic theory of science. Part of the attraction of Deleuze, for me, is that he is one of the few “Continental” philosophers who knows some science and respects it. It’s very different from either Heidegger’s anti-scientism or Habermas’ more moderated positivism (which he shares with the pre-exile Frankfurt Schoolers), i.e. positivism is OK for nature but not for us humans.

    A consistent, post-Darwinian critical theory needs to begin with the thought that if positivism gives us bad social science, it also gives us bad natural science — and in both cases, for the same reason: because positivism is implicitly committed to the dogmatic image of thought and consequently cannot “think the virtual.”

    I’ve downloaded the Kant/Whitehead paper and I look forward to reading it. Thank you very much!

  2. […] And the video of “Mea Culpa” under the fold. Which seems like a good soundtrack to re-reading Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura – prompted, in part, by wondering about the revival of metaphysics (eg, Alliez’s The Signature of the World or, for a more considered engagement, Steve Shaviro on Whitehead). Or, if you prefer, you can just watch Ambient Music for Airports. […]

  3. David Daratony says:

    I would agree with Rorty. I would limit Whitehead’s importance to his collaboration with Bertrand Russell on Principia Mathematica.

    I wish I could share in your enthusiasm. I realize he was one of the first English philosophers to incorporate the idea of quantum physics (though I don’t know exactly the synchronic parallel of Whitehead’s metaphysics to Bohr, Schrödinger, and Heisenberg’s work) into his idea of substance as process.

    Back then there was a serious concern with justifying our experience of the world with our scientific knowledge of the world. I still think this is an important epistemological concern (taken seriously by Merleau-Ponty as well as analytic philosophers of science). And I think Whitehead bypasses many important logical consequences with his “replacement” of materiality with the idea of becoming with contingent missing occurrences–what’s that!?

    I do think there is room for this kind of speculative thinking. I also can appreciate it in relation to Deleuze’s thought on becoming (and force; see *Nietzsche and Philosophy*). Of course, Deleuze’s ideas in *Nietzsche* are a hybrid of Bergson’s élan vital and his interpretation of Spinoza’s philosophy as expression. Sum untotal, experience for Deleuze (as it might relate to the gaps in Whitehead’s speculations) is not the representation of a transcendental object (substance) through conceptual models, but the expressions of Ideas (the Platonic Deleuze) through a complex process of differentiation. In many ways, one can take Deleuze’s work in *Différence et répétition* and fill the gaps and inconsistencies of Whitehead’s thoughts on process. Deleuze here is a much better theorist of becoming and process (though I don’t think he comes up with much to say on the convention of materiality; or, he simply denies it by ignoring that there is an epistemological problem).

    I think Merleau-Ponty’s work is based more on commonsense and more closely related to problems of analytic philosophy’s concern with epistemology. The problem with Kant has always been his insistence that metaphysical claims are bound to bifurcate into equally supportable views. And, his transcendental aesthetic seems to ground human experience within the stricture/structure of euclidean space… so relating process materiality to Kant is highly suspect and problematic.

    I’ll have to download your paper. But I must be intellectually honest–these were my first thoughts/impressions of the matter.

  4. Kirby Olson says:

    Steve, there are 800,000 dog bites per year in America. Of these, about 75% are to the face and neck of the small children (under 10) that are their “owners.”

    Whitehead has a weird metaphysics: he argues that what God was in the beginning is not what he’ll be at the end. Isn’t that right? and that history is God coming to know himself. It’s something like Hegel, in fact.

    I prefer the idea that God is static.

    I hate change, except when it comes to outlawing the dog, which as Woody Allen said is just God spelled backwards. Owning a dog is like owning a gun with a mind (well, sort of a mind, but one that is incapable of reading Whitehead) of its own.

    On the other hand, I do like cats and John Locke.

  5. […] So far I have read the little book The Concept of Nature (1920) and the first 90 pages or so of his master work, Process and Reality (Corrected Edition) (1978). After reading Deleuze’s The Fold and piking up the contagion of Steve Shaviro’s enthusiasm for Whitehead evident in his blog posts I decided a while ago that I was going to have to read Whitehead’s work. Deleuze references three of Whitehead’s books in The Fold so I bought them to read over the ‘break’ (break from what, exactly? lol). Reading Whitehead’s work after reading lots of Deleuze’s writings it is obvious there is a very strong connection between their respective philosophical systems. To properly understand Deleuze’s conception of the event developed in The Fold I would have to read these three books. […]

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