Thursday 8 December 2016

Alfred North Whitehead and the Logician's Nose

In his foreword to Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead, Bruno Latour writes:
“It could be one of those little games journalists play on television talk shows about books: “Who was the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century whose name begins with W?” Most learned people in America would answer “Wittgenstein.” Sorry. The right answer is “Whitehead” – another philosopher whose name begins with W to be sure, but one who is vastly more daring, and also, unfortunately, much less studied.”
Last week, here in Aber InterPol, we had a two-part reading group on A.N. Whitehead’s works. Being partial instigator, I got to choose the readings:
Session 1 – Whitehead’s Problem: The Bifurcation of Nature
The Concept of Nature, chapters I (“Nature and Thought”), II (“Theories of the Bifurcation of Nature”) and VIII (“Summary”). In these lectures (given 1919), Whitehead sets out his “problematique” for the first time, concentrating primarily on the philosophy of physics – something that is taken up and expanded in his later works. His argument here is crucial to many contemporary thinkers, such as Haraway, Barad, Latour and so on. 
Session 2 – Philosophy between Science, Art and Nature
Science and the Modern World chapters IV (“The Eighteenth Century”), V (“The Romantic Reaction”) and XIII (“Requisites for Social Progress”). In these lectures (given 1925), Whitehead fleshes out his problem historically, ranging much more widely than before. The fourth and fifth chapters are particularly interesting because they set out a distinction between natural philosophy and nature poetry, respectively, with Whitehead, as philosopher, taking both equally seriously.
We had been hoping to arrange something like this for a while; however, the occasion was provided by the annual visit of (Visiting Professor) Patrick Thaddeus Jackson from American University – noted Wittgensteinian (and Weberian, for that matter).

Besides myself, we had Milja Kurki, whose work on ‘relational cosmology’ gave us some really important parallels between Whitehead’s century-old works and contemporary physical thinking. Also, representatives of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Eliasian process sociology, and more.

Whitehead’s works are really important for my research at the moment, particularly regarding the place of ‘environment’ within his ‘philosophy of organism,’ and so it was extremely useful to get such a wide range of reactions. Having spent quite some time reading and absorbing Stengers’ reading of (or rather with) Whitehead, I am given to picking up particularly on his pragmatist tendencies. For example, from Science and the Modern World:
“You cannot think without abstractions; accordingly, it is of the utmost importance to be vigilant in critically revising your modes of abstraction. It is here that philosophy finds its niche as essential to the healthy progress of society. It is the critic of abstractions.” (p.59)
Patrick, on the other hand, was most struck by the ‘totalising’ ethic of endeavouring to combine all elements of experience and of scientific fact into a complete conceptual scheme, a theory of everything.

This impression derived particularly from recognition of Whitehead’s intellectual milieu. This being a few years before Gödel's incompleteness theorems were published (1931); a place and time where a ‘theory of everything’ was an objective that hardly needed explanation. Indeed, in our first reading, The Concept of Nature, Whitehead pointedly evades what he calls ‘metaphysics’ but sets out, quite straightforwardly, to construct a concept of nature that will enable the unification of the sciences. And, of course, we can hardly ignore that Whitehead was the mathematician who, with Bertrand Russell, attempted to do nothing less than provide a new foundation for mathematics in their Principia Mathematica (explicitly echoing Isaac Newton in the process).

Reading Whitehead's prose can seem, as Patrick put it, as though it's translated “from the original math.” We can see the ‘totalising’ aspect encapsulated very well on the very first page of Process and Reality (1927), where Whitehead describes “Speculative Philosophy” as:
“the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” (p.3)
Of course, much hinges on what is understood by “our experience” but we can see the point.

My first reaction to this was that Whitehead’s project may have been totalising in this sense but it was not dogmatic. In other words, we should consider precisely what way it was totalising (partial, preliminary, fleeting – i.e. pragmatic). In Stengers’ words (taken by Latour as an epigraph): “Every synthesis begins ‘anew’ and has to be taken up from the start as if for the first time.” In Whitehead's own words: “The many become one, and are increased by one” (1927, p.21).

However, this all got me to thinking further about what I take from Whitehead, creatively rather than historically per se. My interest is not so much in ‘totalisation’ in the sense of insisting that conceptual schemes should necessarily involve consistent abstractions from “every element of our experience.” I am interested in avoiding arbitrary and premature delineations of intellectual boundaries – something for which Whitehead is evidently excellent.

However, I think the more interesting point concerns the profound obligation imposed by the requirement of logical consistency. The interesting aspect of logic, in this regard, is not so much the promise of cohesion into a permanent, solid, unshakeable whole. Rather, it is the unavoidable recognition of the fact that altering one part of the spider's web ripples through every other element. Change your concept of relation and this affects your understanding of life, knowledge, politics, dreams.

If Whitehead’s milieu compels us to interpret him as searching for the totality of the infinite, I am in a sense interested in the totality of the indefinite – stretching far beyond any given instance or expression, constantly rippling back, surprising and forcing reassessment of what could previously taken as totality. In other words, when we refuse to keep process cosmology out of the process of thought. When we give up trying to think the thought that would allow us to stop thinking.

In this sense, you need the logician’s nose to follow the flows. The genius of the tradition of rationalism that Whitehead embodies lies not so much in permanence but in its capacity for dealing with impermanence.

Thinking the thought that would allow us to stop thinking – was this Whitehead's objective? Maybe. But he provides plenty of possibilities for those seeking to kick the habit. Not trying to bring thought to an end but refusing to give up on the means yet developed for dealing with the exigencies of the indefinite.

The Anthropocene, Eurocentrism and Consensus

The Anthropocene is, as they say, a contested concept. This contestation has rumbled loudly along a number of fault-lines – none louder (or perhaps faultier) than the dispute between Clive Hamilton, on the one side, and the likes of Erle Ellis and Mark Maslin, on the other.

For Hamilton, the Anthropocene has to be defined principally in accordance with the principles of Earth System science; specifically, with regard to the shift of system state brought about by industrialised human activity. 'Industrialised' is the key term. The mere fact of human beings affecting their surroundings – something recognised for centuries – is beside the point.

For others, however, this is precisely the point (e.g.). Ellis and Maslin argue that an industrially-defined Anthropocene:
"[…] ignores thousands of years of human impact on Earth. To declare the start of human transformation of Earth in the 1950s fails to take into account the continuous nature of human-induced changes to our planet. Underlying such a claim is the view that only Earth’s most recent human populations possess the capacity to change Earth. Such thinking instils a Western, white-male, elite-technocratic narrative of human engagement with our environment that is counter to contemporary thinking in the social sciences."
While sharing many of these authors' convictions, I must confess that I find this claim to be rather misguided.

First of all, I agree with Hamilton that an 'early' Anthropocene defined in terms of human capacities for soil erosion, fire-based agriculture or continent-scale extinction is basically incoherent. It has to be defined explicitly in relation to a tipping point or shift of magnitude or the whole concept becomes basically arbitrary.

However, this is the least of the problems. The Anthropocene as a term has been widely criticised, not least by social scientists, for its construction on the Greek 'anthropos' – i.e. humanity. Since causality entails responsibility, a great many have pointed out that it is not humanity as such but, rather, that most industrialised, capitalised tranche of humanity that has brought about the new epoch.

Ellis and Maslin attempt to turn this critique on its head by suggesting that a denial of the 'early' Anthropocene entails a denial of the "capacity" of "all but Earth’s most recent human populations" (presumably they mean industrialised societies) "to change Earth" (note the capitalisation and absence of 'the,' conveniently blurring 'surroundings' and 'planet').

So, non-industrialised humans are left out of the Anthropocene club. Is this an exclusion or an exemption? Ellis and Maslin presume the former. It must be humanity as such that defines the Anthropocene – to say otherwise reinforces the narrative of "Western, white-male, elite-technocratic"…

While I would not presume to pronounce what the "contemporary thinking in the social sciences" is, I  suspect more than a few social scientists would take issue with this on any number of levels. It is like saying that nineteenth-century Indians, as human beings, had the capacity to colonise the British – undoubtedly true but also completely beside the point. There is a whole historiography on why the Industrial Revolution didn't happen in China before Britain. It could have done; it didn't.

This rather perverse universalist guilt-trip evaporates the moment one considers the question of magnitude.  Yes, humans have always "shaped the environment" – so have all mammals, animals, life. So what? Not every meteor strike is geologically significant, some are. Same principle.

It seems to me that the 'early' Anthropocene, if it is to make any sense whatsoever, must adhere to the following: The arrival of industrial humans was inevitable. Take pre-industrial humans and industrial humans follow as if it were a logical consequence. This is the only way all these myriad diversities can be lumped into the same boat.

And 'diversity' is the final point. Ellis and Maslin make a plea for the place of social scientists at the natural science table:
"It is time for the Anthropocene Working Group to move beyond its current status as a typical stratigraphic working group, formed of invited volunteers without a formal membership process or by-laws. 
We instead call for a dedicated scientific institution, perhaps called the International Anthropocene Commission, to coordinate this. It could be set up and funded by the International Union of Geological Sciences, Future Earth and the United Nations. Half its members should be drawn from anthropology, archaeology, history, sociology, geography, paleoecology, economics and philosophy."
In broad strokes, this is something that I would be sympathetic with. However, there is a crucial difference between geology in particular and the social sciences and humanities in general. A single community-approved timescale is the backbone of the former, it is more or less irrelevant to the latter. Non-geologists can do their work without this consensus – and they will do, whatever happens.

Ellis and Maslin are right to point out that the institutional inauguration of a "human epoch" is an event with much broader and more profound consequences than the parochially geological. However, their strategy of blurring boundaries helps no one. Geology is not landscape ecology and it is not at all clear why it should be.

Above all, defending a post-1750 or post-1950 Anthropocene in no way, shape or form entails the presumption that non-industrial peoples are somehow 'in harmony with nature' or any of that outdated claptrap.

The "Western, white-male, elite-technocratic" concern is an important one but, in this case, thoroughly misconceived. Certainly, this means that more dialogue is needed between natural, social, political and human sciences. However, this is already happening without the forms of consensus that are the peculiar prerequisite of geology.

Dialogue doesn't mean collapsing differences. On the contrary, it requires heightened sensitivity to them.