Friday, August 19, 2016

The Radical Pluralism of William James

"Absolute unity still remains undiscovered. 'Ever not quite' must be the rationalistic philosopher's last confession concerning it. To the very last, there are the various 'points of view'...Something is still other, from your point of view, even though you be the greatest of philosophers...There may be in the whole universe no one point of view extant from which this would not be found to be the case. This is pluralism." (James, 1897)   
William James in Brazil, 1865
I recently had the exciting opportunity to read through most of the major works of William James (1842-1910) for one of my doctoral exams. Having studied Whitehead – and process thought more generally – for quite a few years now, I was already very sympathetic with the Jamesian project of “radical empiricism.” After all, Whitehead is clear about how much he was influenced by James, calling him "that adorable genius" and ranking him alongside Plato, Aristotle, and Leibniz as one of the four greatest Western philosophers. Additionally, Deleuze was also influenced by James, explicitly describing his thought as a "radical empiricism," and (echoing Whitehead) called him an "astounding genius" while lecturing in 1987.

But even though I had read a small amount of James' writings for myself in the past, I wasn't able to focus on them as much as I would have liked. Now, after fairly close readings of The Will To Believe (1897), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism (1907), A Pluralistic Universe (1909), and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912) – along with a few chapters from both The Meaning of Truth (1909) and Some Problems in Philosophy (1911) – I am more convinced than ever that, not only is James a complete joy to read, but he still matters for philosophy and theology. And, it turns out that I'm not alone in this: beyond the vibrant community of American pragmatist scholars, theorists like William Connolly, Isabelle Stengers, Brian Massumi, and Bruno Latour are four major contemporary thinkers who are deeply Jamesian in new and creative ways. So, for this post, I want to offer a short overview of the Jamesian philosophical project as a whole (a bit like I recently did for Cusa). This includes three interconnected components: radical empiricism, pragmatism, and pluralism. I'm going to focus on the first two below, but I'll include some points about his pragmatism as well.

Radical Empiricism

At the foundation of James’ philosophical project is what he calls “radical empiricism” – empiricist, because he largely accepts the basic position of empiricists like David Hume and John Locke that one can only gain knowledge of reality through direct human experience, and not merely through rationalist reflections of the mind apart from experience; and radical, largely because he insists on going beyond Humean-Lockean empiricism in claiming that human experience is much richer and deeper than whatever impressions are felt through the five senses alone. Thus, James believes that we directly - though often vaguely - experience relations of many kinds: of the body, of an external world, of memory (or the causality of the past), of the subconscious, the divine, and more.

In the introduction to The Meaning of Truth, James provides a succinct, three-fold explanation of what he means by radical empiricism:

First, it includes a “methodological postulate” that what is real must be experienced somewhere, and whatever is experienced must somewhere be real. This claim overlaps with what James means by "pragmatism," a philosophical method that aims to keep concepts, ideas, beliefs, and theories always tied to their experiential consequences. The pragmatist views beliefs as "rules for action," so every abstract difference must make a concrete difference somewhere. It also implies that there may be multiple complementary beliefs about reality if they "work"- in the broadest sense of "working." Furthermore, pragmatism also views truths as human constructions that are always in process, and not as existing in some timeless eternity for us to discover and represent. Truth - with a capital 'T' - does not exist for James. But unfortunately, pragmatism is often misunderstood to mean "whatever works for you is true." This is not at all what James claims. His pragmatism does indeed look at "fruits not roots," "consequences not a priori principles", and toward the "future rather than backward." It therefore views all beliefs/theories as forever hypothetical, never fully capable of grasping the flux of reality beyond perspectives. But it does not thereby result in relativism or subjectivism for James. Beliefs are "true" if they: 1) successfully provide certain "vital benefits" for living - e.g., as practical "short cuts" that help us better navigate the complexity of experience, by continuing to successfully predict future experiences, by making life more meaningful, by making us feel more at home in the universe, etc; and 2) they do not "clash" with previously accepted beliefs that are already held to provide other vital benefits for experience. While some seemingly useful beliefs that initially clash with already accepted bodies of beliefs may force one to revise the older beliefs, this might not always be possible or desirable. Thus, James rejects the all-powerful designer God (despite some claims for its ability to make life more meaningful) because it clashes with his other pragmatic beliefs about freedom, the reality of chance, the problems of good and evil, and modern science. Yet, one need not thereby accept atheism, James argues, since he believes that the divine is a fact in so many person's experiences (as detailed in the Varieties) and that theistic and pantheistic beliefs do produce beneficial effects for so many. James thus "tones down" both the omni-God of scholastic theism and the totalizing pantheism of idealists in favor of a finite, relationally limited, affective divinity (which may not be singular in number, he speculates). Thus, far from requiring scientific evidence or rationalistic proofs, James argues that individuals have the "right to believe" in the divine, to "risk" faith in the "public" realm, so long as they remain critically engaged and reflective, hypothetical, and "tolerant" of the plurality of both religious and secular ways. This is all I will say about James' pragmatism for now, but it is worth exploring further (see his lectures on Pragmatism).

Second, radical empiricism is also a “statement of fact," that relations (both internal/conjunctive and external/disjunctive) are as directly experienced – and therefore real – as the parts of experience. Relations are immensely complex, varying in degrees of intimacy. Thus, James argues that "nothing real is absolutely simple; everything is plurally related." Furthermore, everything is so deeply entangled with other things that "if you tear out one, its roots bring out more with them." Thus, there is no clear line between a "thing" and its "relations." I'll say more about this issue of the reality of relations in the section below. 

Lastly, radical empiricism therefore includes a “generalized conclusion” that the diverse parts of
experience “hang together” by relations that are both real and immanent to experience, requiring no trans-empirical/transcendental support. That is, for James, the world forms a “concatenated”, “strung-along” or “pluralistic universe.” This is an image of the world that he suggests is more anarchical than authoritarian, more like a "federal republic" than a monarchy, and more like "philosophic protestantism" than hierarchical "papalism." So James strongly emphasizes the creative agency and value of every individual, opposes "bigness" in all its forms, says "Damn, all great Empires!" - but this do not lead him to an atomistic libertarianism and to merely opposing big governments while simultaneously supporting big corporations. In fact, James was an anti-imperialist who was deeply critical of American involvement in foreign countries (e.g., the Philippines), especially because he saw it as an effort to expand exploitative, greedy "big businesses" around the globe that lacked concern for the common good and the rights of workers. Thus James' pluralism balanced an emphasis on the individual with an equally strong emphasis on relations and communities. And this leads to the second key element of James’ project: pluralism.

James was very sympathetic with traditional empiricism – which, as he put it, rightly privileges parts before wholes, while rationalists do the opposite. But James was also writing at a time when absolute idealism was quite influential. He was good friends with the brilliant idealist philosopher Josiah Royce and also wrote several critical essays about Hegel. James ultimately positioned his metaphysical pluralism as a middle ground between rationalistic idealism and traditional empiricism. In other words, he claimed a kind of third-way between Kant and Hegel on the one hand, and Hume and Locke on the other. He argued that both groups were guilty of the same fallacy: "vicious intellectualism," which excludes from the reality of a thing what its definition does not explicitly include (essentially what Whitehead later called the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness"). Thus, James argued that the empiricists and rationalists of his day were vicious intellectualists because both excluded the reality of relations from the parts of experience by abstractly defining them as "individuals" or "substances" that exist apart from relations. This requires further explanation.

James criticizes the empiricists for viewing sense impressions as lacking all relations, and therefore in need of some sort of trans-empirical unifying principle or agency to redeem them from an incoherent, irrational chaos of discrete atoms (which mean virtually nothing in isolation). While empiricists like Hume argued that our experience of causal relations between discrete sense impressions are merely due to "habits" – thus leading him to philosophical skepticism – Kant later tried to provide a more rational solution with his transcendental idealism. For Kant, discrete sense impressions are given a coherent unity through the mind’s a priori categories, or the “transcendental ego of apperception.” In other words, trans-empirical concepts are logically necessary in order to relate the chaos of atomistic sense impressions - if we are to avoid skepticism and view reality as rational. Following Kant, Hegel’s absolute idealism is proposed as a superior way of enabling the relational synthesis of discrete sense impressions through the Absolute mind or spirit – which James playfully suggests is really not much more than the Kantian ego blown up like a big “soap bubble.” Either way, Kantians and Hegelians claimed that a trans-empirical entity, agent, or principle must be logically presupposed to redeem our chaos of experience.

James wasn’t convinced by any of these solutions. He pointed out that we virtually never have experiences that come only discretely, apart from relations. Rather, they come with their own partial connections, their own various types of conjunctive and disjunctive relations that give them a certain amount of coherence. Now, this doesn’t secure any sort of perfect knowledge about experience and reality. Far from it. As James writes, “Our science is a drop; our ignorance, a sea.” But even so, he convincingly argues that relations and things come together in experience – and that’s enough for the philosopher to work with. Furthermore, the very concepts that our mind employs to organize experience (e.g., space, time) are themselves derived from experience, rather than a priori principles.

As such, while the rationalistic idealists hoped to secure the unity of the world (and often, an absolutist conception of the divine) by appealing to transcendentally unifying concepts, James insists that the immanence of concrete experience is all that we need to attend to. And furthermore, when we do stick with the “thickness” of concrete experience, we discover that the universe is ultimately  pluralistic - that is, a perspectival "multiverse" rather than a purely irrational "nulliverse" or purely rational "universe". James thus embraces a “mosaic philosophy” without a transcendental mind or absolute spirit that could provide any sort of final unity to reality, and thereby secure a totally rational coherence. While James' pluralistic universe lacks a totalizing vertical unity, we do still get “some” unities – though often in very different respects that leave us profoundly uncertain and limited. Thus, Jamesian pluralism affirms a non-totalizing, “distributive” world of interrelated “eaches” without an “all-form.” His is a radically relational, perspectival pluralism that asks us to work with what we are given: a world that’s partly rational, partly irrational; partly connected, partly disconnected – or as James Joyce so memorably put it, a "chaosmos." Even a pluralistic sense of the divine is plausible in this pluriverse - not an absolute, unifying deity, to be sure, but an "immanent" divine, James suggests. A divine that is not omnipotent, but is essentially limited, and who perhaps suggestively offers life-giving possibilities to creatures. But again, since we have no final foundations for clear and certain knowledge, James argues that everything - and especially matters of ultimate concern - hangs on the word "maybe." James thus proposed what we might now call a "theology of maybe" more than a century before John Caputo's "theology of perhaps"!

Because radical empiricism says that reality is only known in experience, James concludes that "experience and reality come to the same thing." Thus, metaphysics for him just is the analysis of experience in all of its irreducible richness, endless complexity, and unpredictable novelty. He therefore names "pure experience" as his metaphysical ultimate category. Very much like Whitehead's ultimate of creativity or Deleuze's notion of pure immanence, pure experience is the name for what every "pulse" or "drop" of experience is an actualized instance of. It is not a transcendent substance or entity, but a "collective name" for the multiplicity of "things" that dynamically emerge in experience - which then "dip back" into the "quasi-chaos" of pure experience and dynamically reconstitute it, ad infinitum. James explicitly describes pure experience as a nondual "infinite sea" of virtual potential, prior to dualisms of subject/object, mind/matter, and human/nonhuman. Thus, James views it as implying a "pluralistic panpsychism" that sees mind/subjectivity/agency going all the way down in nature, as implicit "in germ" in even non-conscious, seemingly inert things. Whatever exists is thus a kind of panpsychic pattern of pure experience, and this would includes the gods - if indeed they exist. As such, James' radically pluralistic metaphysics of pure experience is ultimately a process philosophy - and he was very much influenced by Henri Bergson in coming to such conclusions. As he writes in A Pluralistic Universe, "What really exists is not things made but things in the making."

Some helpful secondary sources on James:

-Donald Crosby, The Philosophy of William James: Radical Empiricism and Radical Materialism
-William Connolly, "Pluralism and the Universe" (in Pluralism)
-Ruth Anna Putnam (ed), The Cambridge Companion to William James
-Henri Bergson, "On the Pragmatism of William James" (in The Creative Mind)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Infinity, Cosmos, & Panentheism in Nicholas of Cusa

Here is a glimpse at the complex cosmological vision of Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), which I wrote after a full day of re-reading and outlining his magnum opus, On Learned Ignorance. Much more could be said about what follows, but I trust that readers will see this post for what it is: a mere snapshot rather than a fully adequate analysis of Cusa's thought as a whole. My hope is that it will intrigue some readers to investigate Cusa's work for themselves. 

Perhaps Cusa's most stunningly consequential claim in OLI is the following:
"The world has its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere, for its circumference and center is God, who is everywhere and nowhere." 
This provocative vision of a centerless, edgeless cosmos contradicts the Aristotelian/Thomistic/Neoplatonic hierarchical cosmos, the "Great Chain of Being" that dominated medieval thought, and which served to justify ecclesial hierarchy. Now, after Cusa, all is equally a perspectival center, and not merely the earth. Furthermore, the cosmos no longer has a spatio-temporal limit - contra medieval cosmologies, which imagined the stars to be the cosmic circumference. 

Thus for Cusa, nothing finite has metaphysical priority, for all are equally finite, or equidistant, in relation to the infinite. And since all things are their own perspectival centers - and because absolute equality is attributed only to God, the absolute Maximum and Minimum - all things are irreducibly different from each other: "two or more objects cannot be so similar and equal that they could not still be more similar ad infinitum." But each thing - human or nonhuman - is also an image of the infinite God, who communicates being and form to all "without envy," even as the creature can only receive it in a finite way. Thus, each thing is now seen by Cusa to be perfect in its own distinct way. He even calls every creature a "created god" or "finite infinity."

Cusa thus overturned the heterogeneous cosmos in which diverse elements become increasingly "noble" and "pure" as they ascend the ladder of being, replacing it with a homogenous cosmos of equally perspectival and uniquely valuable singularities. It seems to me that modern and postmodern science, philosophy, and theology have continued to validate (or echo) many of Cusa's related ideas in a number of ways:

First, Cusa's cosmology anticipates Copernicus by more than a century, who placed the sun rather than the earth at the cosmic center (i.e., heliocentrism replaces geocentrism). But Cusa went further, claiming that nothing is at the physical center of the cosmos, because God is omnicentric, and creation (as derived from God) images or imitates God "as much as possible." Thus, it too is (metaphysically) omnicentric - although, from another (physical) perspective, its center is "nowhere," since its center is God. 

Second, if there is no absolute cosmic center, there is no cosmic circumference, so the universe is spatio-temporally limitless, endlessly becoming, or "contractedly infinite." Creation thus reflects God, who is imagined by Cusa to be an infinite circle in which center and circumference coincide. An omnicentric cosmos is also "one" from a certain perspective (as enfolded in God), and "many" from another perspective (as unfolded from God). These insights anticipate contemporary theories of the multiverse and cosmic infinity - but again, Cusa's views are based primarily on theological speculations rather than empirical observations. (I'll also mention that, in some ways, it anticipates William James' lectures on "A Pluralistic Universe"). 

Third, since there is no absolute physical center, and since only God is absolute equality while we as perspectival creatures endlessly differ, there can be no absolute (non-perspectival) standard of measurement/comparison between things. Since human knowledge is based primarily on measurement/comparison of proportions, there are two profound consequences of this - one epistemological and the other cosmological: 

1) All knowledge about the physical universe is always necessarily "conjectural," since nothing can provide a non-perspectival standard of comparison between things, and no two finite things could ever be absolutely equal (again, only God is absolute equality).

2) All things must be in motion, since an immobile center at absolute rest is required to measure things in motion (furthermore, only God is absolute rest).

Consequence 1 anticipates post-Kantian philosophy's emphasis on the radical limits of knowing, which dominates nearly all Western thinking down to the present. Consequence 2 anticipates Einstein's special theory of relativity, which says that all rest and motion are entirely relative to the standpoint of the observer. 

Fourth, a centerless cosmos means that all religious claims are perspectival symbols or metaphors that are relative to creatures. They cannot capture God in Godself. Even the Trinitarian names are creaturely metaphors - which are necessary for communal worship, but more importantly, they must be negated to avoid idolatry. Cusa even goes so far as to say that we project ourselves on to God, so that if a lion were to imagine God, it would imagine God like a lion; just as we imagine God in human terms (e.g., Father, Son). Thus, a high degree of tolerance for different and contingent expressions of faith is necessary, and he recommends a dialogical approach to religious differences in order to maintain peace. As a cardinal of the Church, Cusa did not renounce a Christocentric orthodoxy in saying these things. Yet there is obviously something deeply subversive about his approach that enables a more flexible and humble style of religious belief.

Again, these conclusions are based purely on a speculative theology of "learned ignorance" that rigorously holds to the qualitative difference between the infinite and finite. Everything unfolds from that presupposition. Since human knowledge is based on comparing proportions between things - which is quantitative - the infinite cannot be known. And because the finite logically coincides with the infinite (lest the infinite be limited by something external), Cusa ultimately argues: 
"God, therefore, is the enfolding of all in the sense that all are in God, and God is the unfolding of all in the sense that God is in all."
Thus in God's infinity, all opposites are enfolded, including knowledge and ignorance. This is precisely why Cusa maintains that we can only gain some knowledge about reality by first maintaining that we are totally ignorant, by recognizing the profound limits of knowing - not just about God, but about creation as well. Amazingly, ignorance and knowledge coincide as Cusa unfolds a radically relational and perspectival cosmology.

Lastly, in the above quote, Cusa gives us one of the first significant expressions of panentheism in Western theology. His concept of God culminates with the metaphor of God as posse ipsum, or possibility itself. This marks a sharp break from scholastic theisms that privileged actuality over possibility, since the latter is conceived as a 'lack'. But a God of pure act and pure presence is highly deterministic, while a God who is infinite possibility - who 'possibilizes' - is open-ended and continually arrives out of the future. Thus, Cusa ends his speculative theology by claiming that this is the best metaphor for God: the presupposed 'can-do', the enabling divine potentiality for every actuality. Not unlike process theology that developed in the 20th century, Cusa sees each actual creature as 'contracting' the whole interrelated universe, including possibilities, to freely become what it is. Cusa's final panentheistic vision is therefore of a dynamic God who "may-be" (Kearney), not omnipotent, but "omni-potential"(Keller).

For further reading on Cusa (secondary sources), I recommend the following:
-Cloud of the Impossible, by Catherine Keller (chapter 3)
-The Individual and the Cosmos, by Ernst Cassirer (chapter 1)
-World's Without End, by Mary Jane Rubenstein (chapter 3)
-Introducing Nicholas of Cusa, edited by Belitto/Izbicki/Christianson

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

On Gaia & Process Thought (two new books from French Whiteheadians)

I am excited to eventually read two recently published books by French Whiteheadians - both of which are currently only available in French. Thanks largely to the important work of Isabelle Stengers in Thinking With Whitehead, Whitehead seems to be on the rise in some corners of continental philosophy, particularly among those conversant with speculative realism, the new materialism, object oriented ontology, affect theory, the philosophy of Deleuze, and so on. My own view is that the recent turn to Whitehead has much to do with an increasing recognition that too much Western philosophy has been anthropocentric and ontologically dualistic. Whitehead's speculative cosmology provides a helpful way beyond these problems by extending genuine reality, value, and agency to the nonhuman (I have written about this here). In the descriptions of both books listed below, these revolts against anthropocentrism and ontological dualisms are in full view.

The first book that I want to highlight is Facing Gaia, written by Bruno Latour and based on his Gifford Lectures. It should be available in English next year. You can watch his original Gifford lectures here, although the published book apparently includes significant revisions.

The second book is The Lure of the Possible (my translation), written by Didier Debaise. It is a relatively short book that apparently involves a very clear reading of Whitehead's metaphysics, as well as a unique interpretation of eternal objects (always a tricky aspect of Whitehead, as I've written about before). You can watch a lecture from Debaise on Whitehead here.

While studying for my French exams, I translated the publisher's descriptions of both books. It should go without saying that these are not "official" translations (the original texts are linked below). But perhaps some readers will find my humble translation efforts useful for getting a sense of what these books are about.

Facing Gaia (by Bruno Latour)

"James Lovelock has not had much luck with the Gaia hypothesis. By naming with this old Greek myth the fragile and complex system through which living phenomena modify the Earth, some have believed that he spoke of a unique organism, a giant thermostat, or even a divine Providence. Nothing was further from his intention. Gaia is not the Globe, it is not Mother Earth, and it is not a pagan goddess. But neither is it Nature as we have imagined it since the 17th century: that which serves as counterpart to the human subject, constituting the background of our actions.

Now, because of the unexpected consequences of human history, what we have grouped together under the name of “Nature” is leaving the background and rising into view. The air, oceans, glaciers, climate, soil – all that we have made unstable – interact with us. We have entered geohistory. This is the Anthropocene epoch – with the risk of a war of all against all.

The former Nature is disappearing and giving way to a being that is highly unpredictable. Far from being stable and reassuring, this being seems to be constituted by a series of feedback loops in endless upheaval. Gaia is the name that suits it best.

By exploring the thousand faces of Gaia, we can unfold all that the notion of Nature had confused: an ethics, a politics, a strange conception of the sciences, and above all, an economics and even a theology."

The Lure of the Possible: The Recovery of Whitehead (by Didier Debaise)

"By beginning with a recovery of a few updated propositions from the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), this essay intends to highlight the conditions of another way of thinking about nature. It takes a pluralistic approach that integrates the multiplicity of ways of being in nature, which are so many ways of experiencing, of feeling, of making sense, and of giving importance to things.

We have entered a new time of nature. Indeed, what remains of the boundaries that modern thought tried to establish between the living and the inert, between the subjective and the natural order, between appearance and reality, between values and facts, between consciousness and animal life? What relevance could the great dualisms that have presided in the modern invention of nature still have?

New stories and new cosmologies have become necessary so that we can rearticulate what hitherto has been separated. This book attempts to present these directly, in the work of William James and A.N. Whitehead, through a pluralistic approach to nature. What would happen if we were to attribute subjectivity to all beings – humans and nonhumans? Why would we not make aesthetics, in the manner of feeling, the stuff of all existence? And what if the sense of importance and of value was no longer the prerogative of human souls?"

Friday, May 20, 2016

Politics of the Trump Phenomenon: Thinking With William Connolly & David Harvey

For many of us, the spectacle of Donald Trump often seems like a terrible dream: is this for real? And how did we get here? How did we go from a far-from-perfect but somewhat more hopeful age of Obama to the possibility of a Trump presidency, with his quasi-fascist, bigoted, nationalist rhetoric? I suggest that we look to the works of William Connolly and David Harvey to gain some conceptual tools to better understand the rise of Trump. First, Connolly’s critique of the nation – in both traditional and secular forms – is prescient. It helps make some sense of the resentment and fear that Trump has tapped into. Second, Harvey supplements this critique of the nation by explaining the rise of neo-conservativism as a sort of correction to neo-liberal globalization. In short, I argue that at least two major factors need to be seriously grappled with in order to understand Trump's political victories: the tensions between secularist and traditionalist accounts of the nation, and the socially destructive forces of globalization.

In Why I Am Not A Secularist, Connolly offers a postsecular critique of the idea of the nation – even in its more tolerant, secular forms. Traditional accounts of the nation see it as a kind of unifying soul of the state. That is, the nation unifies a people around a cultural center, which typically has included religion, morals, language, race, and/or ethnicity. But with the rise of secularism, such accounts of nationhood have often been “thinned out”, as Connolly puts it. For the most part, secularists have not called into question the structure of the nation, but have tried to bend it in a more tolerant direction. Liberal secularists have accomplished this by constructing “the public sphere” as a new unifying center for the nation. This center is no longer anchored by more divisive organizing principles (e.g., religion, race), but rather by more abstract principles, such as general conceptions of rights and/or authoritative modes of public reason. Thus, the secularist way is to refashion the nation with a more “neutral” public sphere as its center. This scenario requires persons to leave their contestable private faiths and convictions at home when they enter “the public sphere”, which is intended to enable greater diversity (for now, I will not go into Connolly’s alternative of a non-nationalist, de-centered, postsecular pluralism - but by all means, get his book and explore his proposals, which I find very helpful).

According to Connolly, one problem with this strategy is that the secular “thinning out” of the nation’s cultural center ends up looking weak. For those constituencies who strongly identify with older forms of national unity, this abstract version of the nation (based on reason, rights, etc.) seems to produce a lack where a more concrete national center used to be. The thin public sphere – the new unifying center constructed by secularists – then provokes certain constituencies to react negatively against this more tolerant (“weak”) style of nationhood, which now has to try to make room for others who did not fit into older styles of unity: feminists, irreligious persons, LGBTQ persons, immigrants, and so on. They then respond by trying to “renationalize” the center, filling it in with more traditional (and exclusive) sources of nationhood: religious, racial, ethnic, and/or linguistic sources of unity.

It should already be clear how Connolly’s analysis is relevant to today’s political scene. Trump's campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again” certainly taps into those disaffected, disoriented, anxiety-ridden constituencies who find too much secular influence in our time to be a source of national weakness. Such constituencies angrily protest against a liberal culture burdening them with “political correctness”; about the rising number of non-white persons who either do not speak English or have another primary language; about the loss of our nation’s “Christian values”; about the rising numbers of irreligious persons; and even about the decline of white majorities and culture. Thus, many desire to re-nationalize the cultural center towards “stronger” sources of national unity. It should therefore be no surprise that a political leader like Trump would appeal to such constituencies: he talks tough, “tells it like it is”, is proudly politically incorrect, and mocks non-white persons and other marginalized persons.

Economic factors are crucial here, and they are closely related to the cultural issues that Connolly points to. One way that Trump has appealed to certain constituencies is by saying that he is going to bring back jobs that other countries (e.g., China, Mexico, etc.) have allegedly “stolen” from Americans. Now, it is true that many American jobs have been lost due to the forces of globalization, and free trade policies in particular. But whatever policies Trump proposes to deal with such job losses, he consistently couples these incoherent proposals with degrading comments about foreign countries, their citizens, and immigrant workers (e.g., he recently claimed that the Chinese have “raped” our country by stealing American jobs). As such, Trump aims to appeal to disaffected, resentful workers primarily through bigoted rhetoric rather than through coherent policy proposals to deal with the challenging forces of globalization. In the process, he taps into the same cultural anxieties and fears that these constituencies have about secular nationhood. As Connolly writes, “Globalization…foments drives by constituencies injured by global market pressures to reinstate the image of the nation to compensate for those losses. The problem is that these compensations typically involve blaming vulnerable constituencies outside the imagined parameters of nationhood for the loss of jobs and so on, when these very effects are generated by global capital forces” (87).

And this is where Harvey’s analysis of neoliberalism and neo-conservatism in his book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, can supplement Connolly’s critique of the nation. For Harvey, the neoliberal (“market fundamentalist”) ideology that emerged in the late 1970s and rapidly became the ruling ideology of our time has had a profoundly destructive social impact. It was always in tension with the very idea of the nation because of its push towards a globalized economy that – at least in principal – requires national identities to become more fluid. However, with its reduction of freedom to the negative freedom of the market, which leaves behind a chaos of competing individual interests and desires, as well as its commodification of everything, neoliberalism has tended to erode many traditional social solidarities. This situation has made some societies increasingly difficult to govern, often producing widespread anomie, social incoherence, and even nihilism. As such, despite the fact that nationalism is in tension with the individualistic, globalizing principles of neoliberalism, it has never gone away. As Harvey notes, the idea of the nation has rather remained an important social force – a “social glue” – within increasingly fragmented neoliberal societies.

To deal with this situation, Harvey argues that neo-conservativism emerged as a kind of internal correction to neo-liberalism. While neocons continue to affirm a highly deregulated, privatizing market fundamentalism, they try to contain the individualistic social chaos that it produces by imposing social order in an anti-democratic fashion. The neocon’s goal is to restore social order by appealing to some national “center”, a “higher” purpose, a “transcendent” set of absolute values. This tends to include reaffirmations of traditional morals, conservative religion (as in the case of the “moral majority”, or the Christian right), so-called “family values”, and/or race/ethnicity. Neo-conservatism therefore tends to resonate with fascist, nationalist, and/or authoritarian populist movements (which arguably apply in varying degrees to the Trump phenomenon). It tends to be antagonistic toward LGBTQ persons, feminists, environmentalists, racial minorities, etc. It takes advantage of anxious, resentful, and even paranoid constituencies who feel threatened by external forces by then pushing toward increased social control through surveillance, police, and permanent militarization to deal with a world in interminable conflict (e.g., with China, “radical Islam”, etc.). And as Harvey notes, permanent militarization is of course highly profitable for the military industrial complex. Thus, if one understands neoliberalism as an aggressive effort to restore or construct capitalist class power – and the evidence does point to this being the case – then the neocon’s anti-democratic, renationalization of societies is perfectly consistent with the primary goal of neoliberalism.

Having unfolded these political analyses, it seems clear to me that Trump does not fit neatly into the labels of "neoliberal" or "neocon", even as he resonates with them by similarly appealing to the virtues of market capitalism and to unifying cultural centers through his nationalist rhetoric. But while there are indeed multiple factors that might help to explain Trump's rise, two stand out for me: first, the tension between liberal secularist accounts of the nation and those of conservative and/or non-secularist accounts; and second, the socially destructive forces of neoliberal globalization. These two socio-cultural challenges have produced intense anxieties and tensions within certain constituencies that Trump is dangerously exploiting with his blend of neo-conservativism, quasi-fascism, and populist authoritarianism. But ultimately, it is difficult to know if Trump firmly stands for anything other than himself - not religion, not the market, perhaps not even the restoration of capitalist class power...that is, at least not in the way that many other conservative Republicans would prefer. And really, what's more dangerous: a quasi-fascist egomaniac or a textbook neocon? While the latter works to re-situate conservative religion and absolute morals as unifying centers of the nation - and thus as mechanisms of order and control - the former appropriates very similar language while placing himself into the center. Both are terrifyingly anti-democratic realities that must be resisted.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us (book review)

REVIEW: The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us (2016, Verso), by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz 

The Anthropocene names both a time and a condition: the geo-epoch after the Holocene and the increasingly fragile intertwining of the human and nonhuman. Since being popularized by the chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000, it has frequently appeared in academia and broader culture, especially in articles and books covering climate change. Although the Anthropocene might seem to be just another word for the environmental crisis, it goes further by naming “a geological revolution of human origin” (xi). Many scientists now agree that we no longer live in the Holocene, the previous geo-epoch of 11,500 years that, thanks to its relatively stable climate, enabled the flourishing of human civilizations on five continents. Today, humanity has become a geological force, and not just a biological one. In The Shock of the Anthropocene, historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz critically examine the profound implications of this turn to the Anthropocene, “the new age of humans.”

When did the Anthropocene begin? Many scientists argue that it started in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution with the growing use of coal, which pushed CO2 levels beyond the Holocene maximum of 284 ppm to 290 ppm (currently above 400 ppm). As Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz explain, this marked a “break…of geological amplitude and not simply was with the power of fossil fuels that human activities so profoundly transformed the Earth system’s biology and geology” (16). Human activity has continued to transform the planet in profound ways: current CO2 levels have not been equaled for millions of years; global warming is predicted to reach levels unmatched for 15 million years; the great extinction of biodiversity now taking place has previously occurred just five times in 4.5 billion years; distributions of species have been hugely modified; evidence of massive urbanization, industrial production, mining, and agricultural activities will likely be inscribed in the stratigraphic record, along with new substances that humans have produced, such as plastics and pesticides. Consequently, millions of years from now, it is highly probable that all of this will leave geological evidence of human activity in ice cores and the sedimentological record.

Bonneuil and Fressoz (hereafter BF) not only provide an excellent introduction to the science, history, and philosophy of the Anthropocene, but they also present a series of powerful arguments against its official narrative. To be sure, they see value in the concept, and ultimately embrace a version of it. The Anthropocene necessarily challenges bifurcating modes of thought that intensified in modernity, because it “abolishes the break between nature and culture, between human history and the history of life on Earth” (19). Such thinking formed “the cultural precondition for the swing into the Anthropocene" by enabling radical anthropocentrism, individualism, and the externalization of nature as virtually infinite – thus rendering planetary limits invisible. As such, modern science became concerned with an apolitical nature while the humanities and social sciences focused on an anatural society/culture

But the Anthropocene overturns these views by signaling “the return of the Earth into the world that Western industrial modernity on the whole represented to itself as being above an earthly foundation.” It magnifies planetary limits, thus giving the lie to economic and political theories that view nature as little more than a place to extract resources and deposit waste. By abolishing the dualism of nature and society, the Anthropocene implies a worldview in which society is shot through with “biophysical processes”, while flows of matter-energy are “polarized by socially structured human activities.” Affirming this worldview, BF note that their perspective is influenced by the philosophies of Whitehead and Deleuze, the science studies of Bruno Latour, and the eco-Marxism of Jason Moore.

Despite the conceptual potency of the Anthropocene, BF argue that its official “narrative of awakening” must be resisted. This narrative goes something like this: humanity is now a decisive geological force, rivaling many of the great forces of Nature in its planetary impact. Scientists are the heroes because they have awakened us to the environmental crisis and our unsustainable ways. While the ‘moderns’ are at fault for initiating this crisis, they did not have our science or awareness that they were destroying the planet. But now we know, thanks to the scientists, and must look to them for solutions.

However, BF argue that this narrative is flawed in multiple ways. First, it implies an abstract conception of humanity, as if all humans are equally to blame for initiating the Anthropocene. They argue that it was “bourgeois and industrial Enlightenment” humans in particular who not only promoted bifurcating, anthropocentric worldviews, but who also erected the extractive socio-economic mechanisms that swung us into the Anthropocene. BF therefore insist on a Marxist and postcolonial grid that emphasizes differentiated human histories (of power, class, etc.). Moreover, just as the causes of the Anthropocene must be differentiated, so the human consequences of the Anthropocene need to be viewed as “common but differentiated.”

Second, BF argue that the official narrative of the Anthropocene falsely asserts that moderns lacked environmental warnings. In fact, “Our planet’s entry into the Anthropocene did not follow a frenetic modernism ignorant of the environment but, on the contrary, decades of reflection and concern as to the human degradation of our Earth” (76). Early modern societies were not uniformly guided by mechanistic worldviews, the authors claim. Perhaps surprisingly, organicist cosmologies and “environmental prudences” that opposed industrial exploitations were apparently quite common. Even so, one must ask: how truly widespread were these “prudences”? And were these worldviews not still anthropocentric in viewing nature as instrumentally rather than intrinsically valuable? Yet the authors are persuasive in their argument that to ignore earlier environmental sensitivities is to depoliticize the Anthropocene. In other words, we must acknowledge that earlier environmental discourses not only existed, but were actively repressed by those in power – many of whom knowingly destroyed the environment. Shockingly, the authors demonstrate that moderns continued their industrial projects despite knowing that they were environmentally disastrous. For example, upon recognizing that humanity faced a choice between “a brief greatness” with dirty coal or “continued mediocrity” without it, economist William Jevons argued for the former in 1866 (195). As the authors write,
“The conclusion that forces itself on us, disturbing as it may be, is that our ancestors destroyed environments in full awareness of what they were doing...The historical problem, therefore, is not the emergence of an ‘environmental awareness’ but rather the reverse: to understand the schizophrenic nature of modernity, which continued to view humans as the products of their environment at the same time as it let them damage and destroy it.” (197) 
The third critique that the authors make of the Anthropocene narrative is that it tends to assume a generalized “modernity”, which needs to be differentiated more carefully. Throughout the book, BF present historically detailed arguments to show that the real roots of the Anthropocene are, more specifically, the forces of industrial modernity: capitalism (“Capitalocene”), modern warfare (“Thanatocene”), consumerism (“Phagocene”), and American and British imperialism. These structural forces and industrial processes have been uniquely powerful in transforming the Earth, which is why the authors insist on pluralizing the Anthropocene narrative that too easily becomes the basis for an apolitical “view-from-nowhere.” Merely critiquing a generalized “modernity” is thus unhelpful and inaccurate. The authors’ call to further investigate how power differentials and social inequalities have enabled the destruction of environments ought to be taken with full seriousness.

Finally, by elevating a small group of scientists above the uninformed masses, BF worry that the official narrative of the Anthropocene could legitimize a “technocratic”, “oligarchic”, and “marketoriented geopower” (49, 288). Without criticizing this grand narrative, which utilizes seductive rhetoric of epochal rupture and novelty, scientists will “hold a monopoly position in defining what is happening to us and in prescribing what needs to be done” (80). Although B&F affirm the importance of contemporary science, a democratic “politics from below” must also be maintained so that other voices can be heard. They argue that we cannot leave all debates about solutions to the “geocratic experts”, especially when so many of them support dangerous geo-engineering projects. Such proposals view the Earth in radically instrumental terms, thereby denying its alterity “in order to occupy it entirely and transform it into a techno-nature, an Earth entirely permeated by human activity” (61). Furthermore, these “techno-fixes” ignore the really crucial questions about the “basic industrial structure of modern society” (94) and its exploitative capitalist system – which are precisely what need to be challenged and revolutionized for the sake of the planet.

This is an important and challenging book that will undoubtedly become a central point of reference in ongoing debates about the Anthropocene. As an interdisciplinary text that impressively blends science, history, and philosophy, it deserves to be widely read. General readers might especially benefit from the first section of the book, which discusses the origins and various interpretations of the Anthropocene. It will also be valuable for philosophers and theologians who are interested in environmental ethics, political theology, and eco-theology.

[This review is not to be cited without permission from the author.]

Friday, February 12, 2016

REVIEW: "Deep Pantheism" by Robert Corrington

This is certainly one of Corrington’s most important works to date. For those who have never read his previous books, Deep Pantheism is an excellent place to start. It is relatively short, clearly written, and his core argument for the theological position of deep pantheism is compelling. What always impresses me about Corrington is how he manages to synthesize so many other thinkers into his religious or ecstatic naturalism. He draws deeply on the American philosophical tradition, especially James, Dewey, Emerson, and Peirce. He also engages the Continental tradition, such as Heidegger, Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Jaspers, along with psychoanalytic theorists like Jung and Rank. In this book, he adds a creative appropriation of the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo. As a Unitarian (post-Christian) philosopher, Corrington also remains in critical dialogue with the broad tradition of liberal theology, from Schleiermacher’s romanticism to Tillich’s existentialism and Whiteheadian process theology.

Regarding the latter, Corrington views deep pantheism as a distinct alternative to process panentheism (or any type of theism, for that matter), which typically views God as the source of ideal possibilities and the all-inclusive whole of the world. By contrast, Corrington views god in radically pluralistic, naturalistic, and immanent terms. Negatively, deep pantheism rejects the monotheistic idea of God as personal, supernatural, creator, etc. As a naturalist, Corrington claims that “nature is all that there is”, so god is a product of – rather than the producer of – nature.

For Corrington, nature is internally divided into nature naturing (“nature perennially creating itself out of itself alone”) and nature natured (“nature’s products”, or “natural complexes”). Nothing transcends nature, so transcendence is always in and of nature itself. Thus deep pantheism affirms a fully naturalistic god on the side of nature natured, which is a natural complex like everything else. It does not represent a being that is any more or less real than other complexes. It is not a unifying, omnipotent god – an Order of all orders that intervenes, guides the universe towards a final goal, responds to prayers, etc. Nor is this a “flat” pantheism that simply views all of nature as sacred. As such, while “deep” suggests the unconscious depths of nature naturing, we might also name this pantheism “pluralistic,” for there are a “million Godheads” (Aurobindo) emergent from nature. And what is the ‘function’ of the gods in relation to humans? As Corrington writes, they can be “felt as a moment of intensity that goads the self toward a more inclusive and robust realization of its ongoing link to the infinite, but as encountered from the perspective of its own inescapable finitude” (16).

Although these multiple divinities lack an absolute source of unity – and thus are capable of partly explaining multiple, clashing revelations and such – they also participate in what Corrington calls “the Wisdom”, which is a new concept for his work (81). The Wisdom is an internally complex “repository of natural wisdom available” to the human process (84). It too is an evolving natural complex (although unusually vast and complex), which is an emergent from nature naturing. It is the natural “font” of god-ing energies, and thus manifests itself as the finite/infinite gods to human selves through the mediation of naturalistic spirits. However ambiguously and inconsistently, the Wisdom can sometimes provide a deeper wisdom or “higher counsel” to the human process. Among other things, it can provoke mindfulness, comfort the afflicted, and undermine racism by opening the human process to more inclusive communities of interpretation. Beyond the Wisdom, Corrington suggests the apophatic concept of “the Encompassing” (Jaspers), which is a “traitless nothingness” that encircles nature as a whole. In the end, Corrington integrates these  concepts into a "new Transcendentalism", which is his attempt to forge a path between Schopenhauer's pessimism and the early Emerson's optimism: "Honoring both perspectives, it sees the richness and sublime power of many of the potencies of nature naturing, while also recognizing the demonic depths of nature" (98).

Whether one ultimately agrees with Corrington’s deep pantheism or not, this is a fascinating and adventurous work of contemporary theology that will stir the imagination. It will especially appeal to post-Christians, Unitarian Universalists, and "spiritual but not religious" persons. I also recommended it to anyone who is more broadly interested in philosophical theology and religious naturalism.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Best of 2015: Movies, Music, Books

Every year I post top ten lists of the movies, music, and books that I loved during the year. I've always been a list-maker, so this is a post that I look forward to creating every year. For a variety of reasons, compiling my 2015 list has taken longer than usual. While I've had my music and book list ready for some time, it has taken additional time to see a broad enough sampling of the most buzzed about movies of 2015. To be sure, I haven't seen all of them - including a number of Oscar nominated films, which I would likely enjoy. Despite these limitations, I managed to see a lot of great movies last year. My final qualification for this list is about my book selections. A number of the books on my list were not technically first published in 2015, but within the last couple of years (although in some cases, they were published in paperback in 2015). Having said that, these are the movies, music, and books that I loved in 2015:

1) Ex Machina, directed by Alex Garland
2) Love and Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad
3) Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller
4) Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray
5) The End of the Tour, directed by James Ponsoldt
6) Sicario, directed by Dennis Villeneuve
7) The Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson
8) The RevenantAlejandro G. Iñárritu
9) The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper
10) Chi-Raq, directed by Spike Lee

Honorable Mentions: The ExperimenterStar Wars: The Force AwakensBridge of Spies; Spotlight; Tangerine; The Martian; Inside Out; Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal; The Gift; Wildlike.

1) Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell
2) Father John Misty, I Love You, Honey
3) Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
4) Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
5) Leon Bridges, Coming Home
6) Kacy Musgraves, Pageant Material
7) Ryan Adams, 1984
8) Coldplay, Head Full of Dreams
9) Josh Ritter, Sermon On the Rocks
10) City and Colour, If I Should Go Before You

Honorable Mentions: Death Cab For Cutie, Kintsugi; Caitlin Canty, Reckless Sunshine; The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World; The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness; Adele, 25; Bjork, Vulnicura; Mutemath, Vitals; Wilco, Star Wars; Of Monsters and Men, Beneath the Skin.

1) Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology (paperback edition, 2015) by Gary Dorrien
2) Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence (paperback edition, 2015) by Daniel C. Barber
3) Reimagining the Sacred by Richard Kearney and Jans Zimmerman (eds.)
4) Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis? by David Ray Griffin
5) Thinking With Whitehead (paperback edition, 2014) by Isabelle Stengers
6) Deep Pantheism: Toward a New Transcendentalism by Robert S. Corrington
7) Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (paperback edition, 2015) by Charles Marsh
8) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein
9) The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, or Awesome? by Tripp Fuller
10) The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord
Older books that I also loved in 2015: The Fragility of Things by William Connolly; A World of Becoming by William Connolly; A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone; Religion and Ecology by Whitney Bauman; Process Theology as Political Theology by John Cobb; Pragmatism by William James; Josiah Royce: Selected Spiritual Writings by Josiah Royce; The New Gospel of Christian Atheism by Thomas Altizer; What is Philosophy? by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari; A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari; Hegel and Christian Theology by Peter Hodgson; The End of Certainty by Ilya Prigogene.