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. . .

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

7 thoughts on “Thinking with Whitehead: Introduction”

  1. The only riddle Richard Steger, the painter, says he recalls is When is when is a door not a door?” — and the correct answer always to me brings up that jar in Tennessee poem of Wallace Stevens, and is to me an explanation of a notion of importance: that book of Whitehead’s NOTIONS OF IMPORTANCE was so attractive to me when I was in my early 30’s and the group around Laura Ulewicz, George Oppen, Lawrence Fixel, Josephine Miles and others in San Francisco/ Berkeley area makes me remember my noticing what such notions can be in our own Tennessees.

    1. I think Whitehead asks us to see the door as an opening/closing rather than a static slab of some material. By the way, Ed, it looks as if you have stolen a march on us–you already have a feel for Whitehead’s world, sounds like.

  2. When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar.
    And when is a jar not a jar on a hill? When Wallace Stevens comes back to hear Johnny Mathis sing “Until the 12 of never….” maybe. (Johnny will be 82 in a day or so. He went to Roosevelt Middle Sch on Arguello across Geary from where we live, and Washing HS on Geary & 32ndAve and the SF State where his high jump record still stands.

      1. It was on the 29 Sept Thurs we went out to the Balboa (10 blks from Pac Ocean and across the street from the La Promenade Cafe that for decades was the ZEPHYR that you may recall from your youth whipping in from the East Bay) and saw the sneak of MISS PERGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN. What I seem to have brought away from that jumble of reverberating earthquake narrative tremors on that Potteresque island is the relationship between a parent and a child, in this case mainly the dad (although there was a mom early on sending the boys, dad-boy and son-man, on). Just about this time on site the GQ article by novelist Michael Chabon, who lives in the Berkeley/ East Bay area with he and Anat’s 4 kids, about a trip he took with his youngest, 14yrold Abraham to men’s fashion week in Paris. Then comes in a next day George Szirtes’ post of his poem on his dad on Facebook. A mist and through it promises for a parched land. I think now of my on dad (1912-1961) who’s death brought me back from Acherensua in the rain forest in the Ghanaian Brong-Ahafo regions’s west border with the Ivory Coast to Dallas,Texas and then a job as the then family wage earner (and a period of Civil Rights activism). I am beginning to see him again. In 5months I’ll be 80. He never got to see 50. He was a good man who fought for air and his wife and seven kids. I wrote, started, never finished and ended only with a poem “A Fight For Air”. I’ll add it here: A FIGHT FOR AIR
        I. A Fight for Air
        Towels soak in the sink
        Roots crack, splinter
        Each sound’s a stone screaming
        successive millions
        of mute islands
        a secret care I keep folded
        under my fingernail
        dawn after dawn
        The thrill is uneven The saliva curdles
        Sunset climbs closely
        to the fight for air.

        II. Buried World
        The Great River
        plains desert
        Red Rock Red River
        Gulf of Mexico
        deltas bayous hill country
        conscribe an end and a beginning, leading
        from these years this journey back
        to nineteen sixty-one
        Dallas: blotch concrete spread out on the plains.
        We’d come to Texas thirteen years before
        in a slope-back forties Ford.
        I was eleven then.
        We passed through Erie, Kentucky, Delta States
        to arid, fissured land and bottomland and floods
        to dying apple trees.
        Then summertimes
        and othertimes
        Dad took us with him one by one
        to get to know us
        on his travels through his Southwest territory,
        him talking brakelinings for a Firestone subsidiary
        company that let him go not long before he died
        in a chaos of fear
        and pain he said was not like pain
        but was pulling him apart.

        III. Father
        “We brought our children from New York
        to take a better job.
        My wife supported me.
        Her hair turned white that first year.
        She was thirty-three, had borne us seven kids
        in our hometown, Niagara Falls.
        We fought and stayed together
        pounding with our love.
        I was thirty-six that year
        nineteen forty-eight.
        Our oldest son was twelve.
        The baby was a year.”

        IV. Rain
        Being passed
        My father seems beautiful
        his geographical eyes a cage
        of ocean dreams
        who’ll never dream again
        so stubborn, gentle, singing anytime
        some snatch of song he’ll never sing again.

        Nostrils flaring, lungs honking, at the end
        he couldn’t hold his teeth
        only wanted air Air
        His food came back
        I hear him say NO, No not pain I’m
        No steel,
        green-painted, rented tank of oxygen could help
        since death will come when cancer eats the brain.
        It rained the day he died
        and it rained again on burial day. Good Luck,
        it’s angels’ tears, they say the Irish say.
        The dog killed cat run off morphine soaking into sand.
        Gigantic stones snakes apple trees his eyes.

        V. Grave Song
        End of night
        threw my heat in the fire
        O my mama place in the white
        it was too big for me
        I wanted out out I got out
        Go downstairs
        say off wiz de light off wiz all de lights
        up up up
        up wiz de fire up wiz de fire
        (say ‘UP’ with the fire)
        I am afraid
        of the door rats on the stairs miles
        miles miles to the light and I can’t
        say it
        there’s only me
        and and everybody
        and that is no body nobody
        but some thing
        Lock it! Lock it!
        Go go downstairs
        Run Run Run Run out out out
        They are moving
        is light Things in the air
        Tie Ta Tie Ta
        Tie Ta Tie Ta
        people gone
        Cows moo in the fields and are gone
        It does not hold
        Hums Hums Hums
        Hung birds in bottles, eggs writhing like worms
        and the fire burns.

        VI. Little Lifetimes
        Children crush crackers between stones
        celebrating luck and joy
        seeing with ears, breathing music from trees, flowering
        in pure deliciousness
        awakening graves, unarmed against the rain. In time — silence:
        stoning sterile trees,
        praying the dead will sleep between the swollen roots.
        The wind rushes in saying hold my ground, carve
        your own road — the design that develops.

        Now a face begins to emerge seeking air
        examining death to discover patterns
        in the movements of little lifetimes.
        © Edward Mycue

  3. Here is George Szirtes piece referred in the last post above (that I think of as a poem) below —

    Envelope: an experiment with fiction 86 / my father at the mirror stage
    George Szirtes·Saturday, October 1, 2016

    Dad, is that you, I ask the mirror. What if it is, he replies. But I can’t have been shaving you all these years, I exclaim.

    My father and I meet in a shop window. He is wearing the clothes on display. I am in my usual. Take my tip he whispers. Smarten up.
    I am on the Tube, just approaching Tottenham Court Road. Stand up, will you, says a voice in front of me. I am only your father, you lout!
    My father has wandered on to the set of The Lady from Shanghai. A shot rings out. There are several of him lying on the floor. Which is him?
    One day in the mirror I see the back of my head. Yes, I have a bald spot, he says. Fathers are entitled to them. Now be your own father.
    My father has never had a beard but is now wearing one. Welcome to the patriarchy, he says. You’ll find a cross and some nails by the door.
    I am driving down the A11 when a face appears in my wing mirror. Get out of the way, dad, I say. I can’t see a thing.
    I have removed all the mirrors in the house but the windows remain. Would you prefer me to keep out or stay in, asks my father.
    Don’t jump off the roof, dad, You might make a hole in the yard, I sing And there he is, in the mirror, in a hole in the yard.
    So where is your father, I ask Beatrice in the hotel. She holds a mirror in front of me. He’s in there somewhere. she says. Go find him

  4. “I have removed all the mirrors in the house but the windows remain.” That about says it for me. We can learn to abandon our self-regard, but the world of which we are a part remains creating itself in the window we look out. “To study the way is to study the self. To study the self is to be enlightened by the ten-thousand things.” [Master Dogen]

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