Thinking with Whitehead: Introduction

I mentioned in the comments that I found this Introduction challenging. The writing is dense, but beyond that, Stengers seems to be breaking new (to me at least) conceptual ground by trying to write non-dualistically about a subject (science versus . . . everything else) that has always been configured as a dualism & for which we hardly have a non-dual vocabulary. As a consequence, she is of necessity forging a new conceptual language as she goes. Much of that effort proceeds by taking over Whitehead’s term adventure, as in the title of his book, Adventures of Ideas.

[Added later] In this attempt to find a way of speaking, Stengers offers a striking parable about an old Bedouin on his deathbed faced with the task of dividing his wealth among his three sons. He does so by bequeathing 1/2 his wealth to his eldest, 1/4 to the middle son & 1/6th to the youngest boy.  The problem is that the old man’s wealth is quantized in the form of eleven camels. After thus arranging his affairs, the old man dies, leaving his sons not only some camels, but a problem. Stengers tells us in this same chapter how an adventure, in Whitehead’s usage, always begins with a problem–& I would add, a certain imaginative openness to the universe of possible solutions. The brothers are faithful sons & they feel bound to honor their father’s last will & testament, but no amount of arithmetic leads to a solution, so they consult a village elder, who solves the problem by giving the brothers his sickly old camel, bringing the total to twelve, thus making the problem in arithmetic trivial. The accept the gift, divide the camels, then out of charity (one supposes) they return the wise man’s camel to him & go on their way with clear consciences.

The elder’s offer of his camel was an adventure. Before the problem could be solved–or even sensibly addressed–a logjam in the brothers’ thinking had to be broken up. The elder’s offer of his camel solved this problem  by creating a moral placeholder (a kind of necessary fiction) just long enough to break up the blockage in the brothers’ thinking that allowed them to proceed. But isn’t this merely a kind of legerdemain on the elder’s part? If so, does it matter? There must also be other destinations this adventure could lead to–How many? And if we can think of others why do we find this one so satisfying? Perhaps because it is structured like a joke & a good joke can have a psychologically liberating effect. But doesn’t the solution to the problem created by the awkward inheritance seem like a bit of a cheat? A clever & humorous bit of dishonesty, but a cheat nevertheless?  [End of added material]

One way of undertaking this adventure would be to imagine ourselves at a time before science and then to imagine what the world would have been like. If we were to undertake such an adventure we would have to be careful not to import our post-scientific vocabulary and to freely speculate as to the conditions that would prevail. I think that one of the things Stengers is proposing is a kind of imaginative or provisional form of thought that she names speculative, or speculation. This, she suggests, is what Whitehead does in his “speculative metaphysics,” something supposedly banished by the power of analytical philosophy. In this mode, when one is confronted by a problem, one imagines a situation in which the problem might yield to insight. (This is what happens in the parable of the camels.)

As preparation for teaching my Modern Poetry course online next semester, I have been rereading Wallace Stevens, with a view to trying to explain to students something about his “project,” though he would never have conceived of his writing in such a way. In any case, it’s possible to read Stevens–necessary, in fact, to read him so–as sweeping away dualisms & replacing them with a field that he calls imagination. That move opens up several directions of freedom–of play, in all all its meanings: the play of a serious child, but also the necessary play in a pulley or other machine that is necessary for it to operate effectively. It is like placing a jar in Tennessee. Then, the “slovenly wilderness” can organize itself, if only temporarily or provisionally, around the act of our placing the jar, which is an act of imagination.

There is much more to say, but this will have to do for now. . .

Cool Weather

It appears that fall is here. The nights have become chilly & the days cool & breezy. The maple trees continue to change color, with reds & yellows predominating. The days have been clear & sunny & gloriously autumnal, with that particular smell in the air–or of the air–which I cannot really characterize. The life of the woods & garden is most intense this time of year, the colors heightened, the sounds (blue jays) sharpened.

I like to sleep & I sleep well in this weather, the breeze making its low noise in the branches, but I fear to dream, for most of my dreams are set in that other world–the world in which I was not ill–so that I wake always back into the reality of my illness.

Bruno Latour’s Foreword to Thinking with Whitehead

Latour is one of our most prolific philosophers of science & and obvious choice to write a foreword to Stengers’ book. Stengers is, after all, trying to clear a space for thinking that falls outside the heavily guarded walls of science. Latour has been criticized by working scientists for attempting a similar undertaking in his many books.

Latour begins by placing Whitehead ahead of Wittgenstein among 20th century philosophers, an assertion that will certainly get a rise out of the vast army of Anglo-American intellectuals who have made Wittgenstein a touchstone, if not a cornerstone, of their thinking. Here at the beginning of this adventure, I remain unconvinced.

Latour notes that Whitehead has been relegated to a kind of back corner of the classroom because he has “indulged in metaphysics” and pursued a speculative mode of thinking, practices supposedly ruled out by the analytical philosophy that has so dominated 20th century thinking–at least among the small number of people who pay attention to such things. Latour focuses on the way in which science, in order to assure its objectivity has ruled out values as illusions, as part of something “secondary” to the primary work science has set for itself. Stengers is not trying, so far as I can see, to diminish the work scientists actually do, but to clear space for “illusions.” Stengers go to some pains in her introduction to not reignite the science wars & to not diminish the work of science, which she values as simply another kind of adventure, while at the same time insisting on the reality of things that science rules out.

Noted later: Doesn’t my talk in the first paragraphs above of inside & outside, of ahead & behind, immediately plunge us into the kind of dualism(s) Stengers is trying to very hard to avoid–dualism(s) very deeply embedded in our language & thought?

Along came a spider and sat down beside her . . .

Thinking with Whitehead by Isabelle Stengers

It turns out the my friend Chris and I had nothing but praise for Menand’s The Metaphysical Club & we exhausted that after a couple of private conversations. Perhaps it was because both of us had read the book before, so that rereading didn’t generate much in the way of new ideas, notions, insights, or whatever. (Or perhaps because I had been filling up my imagination with audiobooks of detective stories, chief among them the Inspector Maigret series by Georges Simenon. High class detective fiction, but detective fiction nevertheless.) So we have decided to change the rules before the game began, taking up a book neither of us has read–and also one we both feel compelled to read despite its formidable density & difficulties.

Chris & I will be having at least part of our discussion of Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking with Whitehead in this blog space, with me posting a general topic, then moving to the comments for discussion. There are no doubt more elegant ways of presenting our thinking, but this one requires the least technical setup, for which I have less & less patience these days. Beginning with my next post the, we will take up this new adventure in reading–“adventure” being a key term in Whitehead’s philosophical system, for whom the word denoted a kind of opening in thinking, perhaps even a kind of eager opening. That, at any rate, is what I’m feeling in anticipation of reading this, as I said above, formidable book with my friend. Adventures are sometimes best undertaken with a trusty companion.

One final note about my own motivation for this project: Much of what Whitehead opens himself to in his non-analytical, intentionally metaphysical “system” of thought reminds me of the openness to experience of Zen, which has become my guiding universe of insights in recent years, though Whitehead’s language, terminology, etc. could not be further from Zen.

The Most Beautiful Morning

It is very early autumn here in the north country, the tops of the maples just beginning to change color while the lower branches remain green. The days are warm, the nights cool. This morning after Carole left for work I took the dogs out on the deck with me and sat for a while enjoying the still-cool morning air, the warm sun, the breeze. The sky was an expanse of pure blue beyond description & the river picked up that color, the surface broken by small wavelets that sent points of brilliant silver light in every direction. It occurred to me that, despite everything, this was the most beautiful morning of my life. Or perhaps it was because of everything. The ten-thousand things in perfect harmony, so that even the sound of a truck grinding its gears as it rattled over the bridge fit perfectly into the music of the morning.

The Quality of Time

It has been a little over a month since I’ve posted anything in this space. The hiatus began as carelessness, I suppose, or distraction by my own troubles, but then continued more or less intentionally. I’ve been taking a kind of vacation from human contact, listening to audiobook potboilers, surfing YouTube & napping as often as I could manage to fall asleep. I think what happened–this in retrospect–I had gotten tired of my own situation & wanted to get away from it. Time’s quality changes inexplicably.

I now find that, without consciously attempting it, that I am again interested in communication & my life as a writer. One grows tired of vacations after a while. I’m not yet sure what will come of this, but I expect to begin posting here again, at least occasionally. Not sure what I’ll write about, probably reading. I’ve just finished rereading Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club & have begun Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking with Whitehead. The plan to discuss the former with my friend has fallen through, mostly because of the vacation I have been describing, partly because of his pressure of work. I hope we will still have a chance to discuss books / ideas online.