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.

Metaphysical Club (The Politics of Slavery)

  • Menand begins with the figure of Oliver Wendell Holmes, jr. A figure better known to the history of law than to the history of the Transcendentalists.
  • Emerson wrote to Holmes, “A scholar need not be cynical to think that the vast multitude are almost on all fours . . .”
  • Whenever I read about the Transcendentalists & post-trancendentalists, I reach for my volume of Wallace Stevens. I think Stevens is the last member of the generation of The Metaphysical Club. The underlying philosophical questions remain the same in Stevens.
  • The word pragmatism’s earliest meaning according to the OED is akin to sophistry, or empty language. That meaning then fades out as the more modern meanings emerge.
  • Menand writes that pragmatism is an account of the way people think. I’m particularly interested in the ways language enters into this explanation.
  • “Truth is what happens to an idea.” –Wm. James

Something New

With my friend CR, I’m going to be rereading Louis Menand’s book, The Metaphysical Club and posting comments here. I’ll start a post with a quotation &  range of pages or chapter headings, then the discussion will move to the comment section of the blog. Everyone who has read the book is welcome to comment along with Chris & myself.

Sunny Morning

The air is cool but sunlight fills the yard. I haven’t been posting much here because my days have all been pretty much the same within a narrow range of sameness. The quality of the light I see when I look out over the river changes over the course of a day: early, it is tinged with yellow, shifting as the morning progresses toward something more neutral, until by midday things present themselves in their own colors. By evening the yellow quality returns. This is all just the physics of light waves. So far so good. But despite the plain science of light, there is some residue of meaning or perhaps only a feeling that inheres in the light. Is it just one of those things that’s “in our heads,” or is there something more? What’s the extra thing that we feel when we allow ourselves to enter the light? Mere illusion? I don’t think so, and can only conclude we human beings–and animals even more so–have the ability to sense the invisible aspects of reality. That light inside the light. The overwhelming greenness of the day is now in full effect & the ordinary light pours down, its invisibles withdrawn into a noon silence. The old Romans thought of noon as a kind of witching hour, a moment of stasis when shadows stand & shiver as noon clicks over into afternoon.

John Donne: Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (No. IV) & the Buddhist Doctrine of Dependent Origination

As part of my project to revisit some of my boyhood favorites (poets, novelists, ice-cream flavors, etc.) I’ve been rereading John Donne, though in this case I take up my project with a slight difference: Since I was in high school & began reading poetry seriously, I’ve admired & studied Donne’s poems, especially the lyrics & Satires. Those are the poems of a young man, bursting with energy & invective. But this week I’ve been reading Donne’s Devotions— a work I had no more than glanced at previously; written in prose, they represent the thoughts of a dying man. So I am revisiting the writer, not by rereading pieces I already know, but by taking up something new of Donne’s. The Devotions are written in a prose that could be cut into a block of granite:

It is too little to call man a little world; except God, man is a diminutive to nothing. Man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world; than the world doth, nay, than the world is. And if those pieces were extended, and stretched out in man as they are in the world, man would be the giant, and the world the dwarf; the world but the map, and the man the world. If all the veins in our bodies were extended to rivers, and all the sinews to veins of mines, and all the muscles that lie upon one another, to hills, and all the bones to quarries of stones, and all the other pieces to the proportion of those which correspond to them in the world, the air would be too little for this orb of man to move in, the firmament would be but enough for this star; for, as the whole world hath nothing, to which something in man doth not answer, so hath man many pieces of which the whole world hath no representation.

I offer this excerpt not only as an example of Donne’s mastery as a prose stylist, but because they suggest to me certain ideas familiar from the central Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination. As for the style, read carefully through the sentence that begins “If only . . .” & then look at the way it is framed by the three short sentences that precede it.

Everything is interconnected. Everything affects everything else. Everything that is, is because other things are. This is the teaching of Dependent Origination. [ . . . ] No beings or phenomena exist independently of other beings and phenomena. All beings and phenomena are caused to exist by other beings and phenomena. Further, the beings and phenomena thus caused to exist cause other beings and phenomena to exist.1 

99% of bacteria, by far the most numerous organisms on the planet, cannot be cultured in isolation in petri dishes for the convenience of scientists & graduate students. There is a microbiologist named Slava Epstein profiled in the June 20th, 2016 New Yorker, who is trying, with a few others, to study the 99%. In fact, I would argue, he is studying a concrete example of dependent origination, not just as empirical science, but as metaphysics.

Let’s step back & look at Donne’s metaphor, if that’s what it is, that links a person’s body with the earth. If we unwound the veins in our bodies, they would become rivers, our bones quarries. So far, this is only an example of the kind of elaborate extended metaphor Donne was & is well-known for. But a metaphor, to more than decorative, should plunge the reader into uncertainty, should point toward genuinely unsettling possibilities. Donne is considering his own approaching death in the Devotions, and with it the dissolution of his body. Part IV bears the Latin title Medicusque vocatur. (The physician is sent for). Renaissance scientists had begun doing actual post-mortems, so the imagery of veins & bones has an immediacy it would have lacked a couple of hundred years before Donne wrote. 

Buddhism famously sees everything in the universe as interconnected. Some misconstrue this as meaning there is no difference between one thing & another–a weird kind of epistemological relativism. All things are not one thing–just look around you. “But in their essence . . .” the guru objects. There are no essences; Buddhism insists on a profoundly existential way of looking at the world. And the world is staggeringly multitudinous. The doctrine of dependent origination teaches that the multitude of things, phenomena, processes, objects cause each other to exist. One might say that only the relationships between things exist, not the things themselves, in any essential sense. But even this is a hedge. Even the relationships are empty. From the Dhammapada:

When this is, that is.
This arising, that arises.
When this is not, that is not.
This ceasing, that ceases.

Donne clearly wants to demonstrate the deep interconnectedness of things, but he is caught in a hierarchical system of thought. It was the Renaissance (& A.O. Lovejoy) that gave us the Great Chain of Being, with God at the top & worms, I suppose, at the bottom. Beneath God are the Angels of various sorts, and then Man. Donne explicitly evokes this system of thought in the opening sentences of the fourth Devotion: “It is too little to call man a little world; except God, man is a diminutive to nothing.” This would seem to run counter to the idea of interdependence (Thich Nhat Hanh names it interbeing) so central to Buddhist teaching. So if I am asserting a similarity between the Great Chain & Dependent Arising, where do I see it & how do I surmount this particular difficulty?

First, the Renaissance was drunk on correspondences between the macrocosm & the microcosm. Ideas of this sort saturated the air Donne breathed. Even so, look how he slyly reverses the expected relationship: instead of Man the microcosm representing Earth the macrocosm, Donne writes, “man is diminutive to nothing.” This observation gives my assertion a little breathing room, at least in so far as it shows Donne willing to mess around with parts of the prevailing paradigm. But the poet is still stuck with two (at least) fundamentals that he cannot abandon:2 Those is stuck with his hierarchy & with an eternity in which things actually exist. It is only in the sublunary world.

In consequence, he cannot get to something like dependent origination, despite his metaphor’s demands–at least from the point of view of this reader. I haven’t proven my case, then. Donne’s metaphor is suggestive of interconnectedness & dependent arising, but he is blocked for approaching more closely by the fundamental structure of his society & in particular the intellectual climate of the aristocracy. We do not know what was going on in middle class households, or the huts of peasants. Locations for invention & change–especially the former–that should not be ignored.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Barbara O’Brien, About Religion. See also: BuddhaNet (1) & BuddhaNet (2).
  2. I’m not blaming Donne here; he could no more do away with these concepts than a leopard could change its spots.