Pages

Friday, May 18, 2007

Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s renewals of the Kantian transcendental argument

In a short chapter of The Fold (1993) that constitutes his only extended discussion of Alfred North Whitehead, Gilles Deleuze praises Whitehead for asking the question, “What Is an Event?” (76). Whitehead’s Process and Reality (1929/1978) marks only the third time – after the Stoics and Leibniz – that events move to the center of philosophical thought. Deleuze wrote less about Whitehead than he did about the other figures in his philosophical counter-canon: Lucretius, the Stoics, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Nietzsche, Bergson, and Foucault. But Whitehead is arguably as important to Deleuze as any of these other thinkers. It is only today, in the wake of Isabelle Stengers’ great book Penser avec Whitehead (2002), that it has become possible, for the first time, to measure the full extent of Deleuze’s encounter with Whitehead. My work here is deeply indebted to Stengers, as well as to James Williams (2005) and to Keith Robinson (2006), both of whom have written illuminatingly about Whitehead and Deleuze.
“What is an event?” is, of course, a quintessentially Deleuzian question. And Whitehead marks an important turning-point in the history of philosophy because he affirms that, in fact, everything is an event. The world, he says, is made of events, and nothing but events: happenings rather than things, verbs rather than nouns, processes rather than substances. Becoming is the deepest dimension of Being. Even a seemingly solid and permanent object is an event; or, better, a multiplicity and a series of events.
Whitehead gives the example of Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment in London (1920/2004, 165ff.). Now, we know, of course, that this monument is not just “there.” It has a history. Its granite was sculpted by human hands, sometime around 1450 BC. It was moved from Heliopolis to Alexandria in 12 BC, and again from Alexandria to London in 1877-1878 AD. And some day, no doubt, it will be destroyed, or otherwise cease to exist. But for Whitehead, there is much more to it than that.
Cleopatra’s Needle isn’t just a solid, impassive object upon which certain grand historical events – being sculpted, being moved – have occasionally supervened. Rather, it is eventful at every moment. From second to second, even as it stands seemingly motionless, Cleopatra’s Needle is actively happening. It never remains the same. “A physicist who looks on that part of the life of nature as a dance of electrons, will tell you that daily it has lost some molecules and gained others, and even the plain man can see that it gets dirtier and is occasionally washed” (167). At every instant, the mere standing-in-place of Cleopatra’s Needle is an event: a renewal, a novelty, a fresh creation...
For Whitehead, there is no ontological difference between what we generally call physical objects, and what we generally call mental or subjective acts. Whitehead is in accord withWilliam James (1996) in rejecting “the radical dualism of thought and thing” (28), and insisting rather that “thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are” (37). The sheer material existence of Cleopatra’s Needle is an event; and so is my perception of the Needle. Whitehead thus insists upon what Deleuze (1994) calls the “univocity” of Being: that “Being is said in a single and same sense of everything of which it is said,” even when “that of which it is said differs” (36)...
In order to speak adequately – which is to say, univocally – about events, Whitehead rejects the “subject-predicate forms of thought” (1929/1978, 7) that have dominated Western philosophy since Descartes...
The shift from Kant’s questions to Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s questions is largely an historical one, deeply embedded in the progress (if we can still call it that) of our modernity. Kant, of course, is a great thinker of Enlightenment, which he famously defines as “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity” into intellectual adulthood (1983, 41). Foucault (1997), commenting on Kant’s Enlightenment text some two centuries later, remarks that “the historical event of the Enlightenment did not make us mature adults, and we have not reached that stage yet” (319). Nonetheless, he praises Kant’s stance for providing “a point of departure: the outline of what one might call the attitude of modernity” (309). And he urges us today to continue Kant’s reflection in the form of “an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (319).
This is the task that lies behind Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s renewals of the Kantian transcendental argument. As for the shift from foundational questions about knowing, obligation, and belief to pragmatic, constructivist questions about events, potentialities, and the process of actualizing them, this is not a betrayal of Kant, but an urgent and necessary renewal of his legacy, at a time when “all that is solid melts into air,” and when we are told that the grand narratives of modernity are dead (Lyotard 1984), and even that “we have never been modern” in the first place (Latour 1993). For, as Deleuze and Guattari (1994) suggest, “it may be that believing in this world, in this life, becomes our most difficult task, or the task of a mode of existence still to be discovered on our plane of immanence today” (75). It is such a task, with the aim of converting ourselves to this kind of belief, that Whitehead (1938/1968) envisions as “the use of philosophy,” which is “to maintain an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system” (174).
References
Bloch, Ernst (1986). The Principle of Hope. Trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, Paul Knight. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Clark, Tim (2002). “A Whiteheadian Chaosmos? Process Philosophy from a Deleuzian Perspective”. In: Process and Difference: Between Cosmological and Poststructuralist Postmodernisms. Ed. by Katherine Keller and Anne Daniell. Albany: State University of New York Press. 191–207.
Delanda, Manuel (2006). A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity. New York: Continuum.
— (2002). Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. New York: Continuum.
Deleuze, Gilles (1994). Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press.
— (1983). Nietzsche and Philosophy. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson. New York: Columbia University Press.
Deleuze, Gilles (1993). The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Trans. Tom Conley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
— (1990). The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester. New York: Columbia University Press.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
— (1994). What Is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press.
Foucault, Michel (1997). Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Ed. by Paul Rabinow.
Vol. 1. Essential Works of Foucault. Trans. Robert Hurley, others. New York: The New Press.
— (1970). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage.
Hayles, N. Katherine (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
James,William (1996). Essays in Radical Empiricism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Kant, Immanuel (1996). Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Werner Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett.
— (1983). Perpetual Pease and Other Essays. Trans. Ted Humphrey. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Lacan, Jacques (1978). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton.
Lapoujade, David (2000). “From Transcendental Empiricism to Worker Nomadism: William James”. In: Pli 9. 190–199.
Latour, Bruno (1993). We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Lucas, George R. (1990). The Rehabilitation of Whitehead: An Analytic and Historical Assessment of Process Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Lyotard, Jean-François (1984). The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Meyer, Steven (2005). “Introduction: Whitehead Now”. In: Configurations 13.1.1–33.
Pred, Ralph (2005). Onflow: Dynamics of Consciousness and Experience. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Robinson, Keith (2007). “Deleuze, Whitehead, and the ‘Process Point of View’ on Perception”. unpublished essay. 2007.
— (2006). “The New Whitehead? An Ontology of the Virtual in Whitehead’s Metaphysics”. In: Symposium 10.1. 69–80.
— (2005). “Towards a Metaphysics of Complexity”. In: Interchange 36.1-2.159–177.
Sha, Xin Wei (2005). “Whitehead’s Poetical Mathematics”. In: Configurations 13.1. 77–94.
Simondon, Gilbert (2005). L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information. Grenoble: Million.
Spinoza, Benedictus de (1991). The Ethics; Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect; and Selected Letters. Trans. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Stengers, Isabelle (2002). Penser avec Whitehead: une libre et sauvage création de concepts. Paris: Seuil.
— (2005). “Whitehead’s Account of the Sixth Day”. In: Configurations 13.1.35–55.
Whitehead, Alfred North (1933/1967). Adventures of Ideas. New York: Free Press.
— (1938/1968). Modes of Thought. New York: The Free Press.
— (1929/1978). Process and Reality. New York: Free Press.
— (1920/2004). The Concept of Nature. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.
Williams, James (2005). The Transversal Thought of Gilles Deleuze: Encounters and Influences. Manchester: Clinamen Press.

No comments:

Post a Comment