Problems & Adventures

Stengers writes that an adventure can only begin in response to a problem. Thus the old father’s perverse decision to set his sons a problem by disposing of his property 1/2, 1/4 & 1/6. The problem being that when you feed three sons, eleven camels & those particular fractions into your problem-solving machine you do not get a solution, but rather an “adventure.” Presumably, one is supposed, when confronted with a problem in this way, to go along with the adventure, as opposed to giving the machine a whack with a hammer. To do this requires a certain kind of humility that is shown admirably by the boys in the parable. Instead of escalating from giving the machine a whack to whacking each other, they seek ot the village elder. In seeking out the elder they recognize the fundamentally social nature of their problem. It cannot be solved alone, or even within the family; instead the sons must resort to the wisdom of their community (embodied in the figure of the elder) in order to sustain their adventure long enough to solve their problem. Of course, this is not a one-off proposition, but an ongoing prescription for leading an adventurous life. Still, the boys were lucky, too. They had a community to whose wisdom they could appeal; they had a problem to which the “necessary fiction” of the twelfth camel could be applied; & they were themselves humble enough to seek the community’s help in the first place. At no point along the way is the hearer of the parable asked to take anything on faith; instead, he/she is merely asked to look at the “cash value” of various possible solutions, such as killing & eating one of the camels. Not very many of these alternatives are addressed in the parable, but they are implied. It is further implied that none of them would have the value of the elder’s fiction–they would not have been adventures. Looked at in this way, an adventurous solution to a problem may be preferable to a non-adventurous one even if it lies, i.e., tells a lie by creating a necessary fiction such as the boys owning a twelfth camel, or the existence of God. (Spinoza’s god rather than Descartes’.) The elder is a pragmatist.

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. . .

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 so very hard to avoid–dualism(s) very deeply embedded in our language & thought? Noted yet later: This strikes me as not a very profound insight on my part. Certainly, the way we have been conditioned to talk about science limits our ability to think completely about it. This is true of any subject, whether science or dentistry, say, because science has relegated unto itself the sole power to judge truth claims. That’s where the whole thing goes belly up.

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.

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.