Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Do rocks think and feel?

I am intrigued by the new loosely associated school or trend in philosophy called speculative realism.  I am currently reading The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism by Steven Shaviro (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).  Shaviro is basically a Whiteheadian, and so his position is somewhat different from the other speculative realists I have read.  I will be pretty up front about my initial position at least.  Earlier I had posted on the speculative realism of Graham Harman, particularly as found in his book The Quadruple Object.   I think, as I argued there, that most of the useful claims made by the speculative realists can be better made within the context of the philosophy of John Dewey.  Dewey's philosophy also avoids some of their excesses.  I am sympathetic to the anti-anthropocentrism of the speculative realists.  We have to get beyond the idea that humans are the center of everything.  At the same time, I think they tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  They are too eager to caste away everything about Kant for example.  Shaviro also advocates panpsychism.   Most of what he says about this makes sense to me:  for example, that animals and even plants can have consciousness or perhaps just intentionality.   I also agree that for thoughts and minds to exist it must be the case that all of nature has a mental aspect to it.  However I cannot agree that rocks think or that there is something that it is like to be a rock.  I also think that the speculative realists just neglect the fundamental fact that we cannot get out of our own consciousness.  Everything we experience is experienced by us, i.e. by humans.  This includes all of the thoughts had by speculative realists.  So I continue to agree with the phenomenologists, and with Dewey, that we philosophers must begin with experience, and specifically with our own experience.  I agree that values are out there in the world but only in the sense of being out there in the world of experience, in the world as experienced.  There may be values in the world as experienced by a virus:  I have no trouble with that.   But there is no reason to posit values in a world without experience or in a world inhabited entirely by non-living things.  Speculative realists like Shaviro are driven to their extreme panpsychist position because they think that the only other alternatives are anthropocentrism or eliminative materialism.  These are not the only alternatives.   Of course the non-mental physical world has the potential for the kind of complexity that leads to life and experience.  The world of thoughts and ideas is emergent upon the world of purely physical things.  There are probably even elements of the non-living world that are precursors to thought and experience, although we have no knowledge of that as this point.  

One thing that attracts me to Shaviro and keeps me coming back to him despite my disapproval of his more extravagant claims is that he, like Whitehead, places a very strong emphasis on aesthetics.  He talks about aesthetics in terms of allure (54).  When something has allure it addresses me and attracts my attention from beyond.  It is, following Whitehead, a "proposition" in the sense of a tale "that perhaps might be told about particular actualities" (Whitehead, PR 256) which proposes a potentiality to the viewer, one that is anchored in an actuality.  We do not encounter things just as packets of qualities.  Rather they offer a "promise of happiness" which is to say, the potential of beauty,  

I am happy with all of this except that unlike Shaviro I think that the object presents itself to me as a proposition partly because of its nature for me.  That is, this is how it is constituted in my experience.  Beauty arises out of the interaction of me with the object.  Others will not find that particular object as alluring precisely because their consciousness is not similarly prepared.  What doesn't work for me is Shaviro's tendency to anthropomorphize the object of allure, as when he speaks of qualities of the thing as "bait that the thing holds out to me." (55) I have no problem, however, with thinking of the thing as a being which acts as though it were a seducer, and it is as if it were providing bait.

When Shaviro goes on to say some other things in relation to an analysis of poem by Shelley that was performed by Whitehead, he really sounds like Dewey.  Here are some of the Deweyan like pronouncements:  "it is actually 'things' themselves - rather than their representations in the form of ideas or impressions - that flow through the mind.  Shelley's insistence on a universe of actually existing things goes against the subjectivism and sensationalism of the rest of the poem, and of British empiricism more the extent that the poem envisions a 'universe of things,' it suggests that we perceive and respond to objects themselves...We do not just analyze them in terms of universals by adding up and associating atomistic 'ideas.'  ....we do not just passively receive a series of bare, isolated sensa;  rather, we actually do encounter Mount Blanc, with its surrounding glaciers and woods and waterfalls...  Mount Blank allures us as it 'gleams on high'"  From a Deweyan perspective this is all good an to the point.

But Shaviro goes on and says that Mont Blanc manifests a Power that 'dwells apart in its tranquility'...[and] this Power is also an actor in a vast web of interconnections:  a force of metamorphosis that rolls...through all things, exceeding 'the limits of the dead and living world..."  (59)  And this seems a bit much.  There is no question that we could experience Mt. Blanc as like this....but going beyond that to posit a Power is just speculation, and frankly has a whiff of residual Deism.   I have argued in other posts that aesthetic atheism does a better job with this, for, although it does deny God,  it does not deny these experiences or their meaningfulness for those who have them.  The primacy of aesthetics is partly a matter of such sublime experiences originally associated with religion and later incorporated into Transcendentalism, are still there.   Religion becomes subsumed under aesthetics, but a much broadened notion of aesthetics.  

Whitehead refers to the "brooding presence of the whole" of nature.  (60)  This anthropomorphizes what Dewey better referred to as the sense of an infinite background (see Art as Experience.)

Shaviro also says "every entity in the world has its own point of view, just as I do, and that each of them somehow feels the other entities with which it comes into contact, much as I do." (61) This includes stones, although Shaviro and Whitehead before him do not attribute consciousness to stones.  This seems a contradiction since feelings and points of view entail consciousness, or else Shaviro is using "consciousness" in a very different way.  "I attribute feelings to stones precisely in order to get away from the pernicious dualism that would insist that human beings alone (or at most, human beings together with some animals) have feelings, while everything else does not."  (61)  But this is not necessary, and is a false dichotomy.   One can attribute points of view and feelings and "what it is like to be...." to all living things, for sure, but need not go on to attribute all of this to stones.  

Again, I am happy with "stone as experienced" being treated as having feelings since they are constituted as part of our world as living beings, and our world as living beings extend beyond us.  The psychological truth that panpsychism and romanticism trades on is this experience of nature as animated.  I suspect that the romantics were right that this way of perceiving nature is more healthy, more conducive to happiness.  It would also be more conducive to preservation of the environment.  As Yuriko Saito has observed, the early Japanese garden theorists recognized this in their treatment of stones in a garden.  Shintoism, of course, takes the animation of stones to be literally true.  I take it to be more appropriately metaphorically true.

A great thing about everyday aesthetics is that in attending to aesthetic objects that are not deliberately constructed as art works we can see that even here there is benefit to seeing objects as having "aura" in my terminology.   Karen Barad is observed by Shaviro as holding that it takes radical rethinking of agency to appreciate how lively dead matter can be.  In a way, I think that is right.  In a way, it is important to overcome the distinction between animate and inanimate, that is within the realm of everyday aesthetic experience.  Everyday aesthetics and closely associated aesthetics of nature can reanimate the everyday and the natural.  But to believe literally that inanimate things have agency is just to bring back an early form of Deism and a kind of magical thinking that can help us little.

When Shaviro and the speculative realists attack what they call correlationism, they are attacking something that contemporary Deweyan pragmatists like myself would also attack in many instances.  For example Shaviro associates the attack on correlationism with Whitehead's attack on "bifurcation":  "Modern Western thought, from Descartes through Locke and on to Hume, partitioned the world between primary and secondary qualities, or between objectively extended objects on the one hand and merely subjective 'psychic additions'...on the other."  Dewey would agree with this, and agree that this was a mistake.  But the speculative realists also hold that the world is not "beholden to our ways of shaping an processing it..."  (55)  This is problematic in a complicated way.  The world as we experience it is in fact beholden to our ways of shaping and processing it in two closely related ways:  first, most of the experienced world is literally beholden to it in that we are constantly shaping and reshaping that would physically to meet our needs:   putting paint on a canvas is one example of such reshaping;  second, and related to the first point, we are constantly categorizing the world, thinking about it, talking about it, and seeing it from our perspective:  much of this is preliminary to the literal reshaping of it mentioned above.  One important aspect of this reconstituting of the world is the way in which we can bring to it our capacity to see aspects of the world as symbols and therefor as animated.  This animation of the world we experience brings it closer to us:  de-alienates it, one might say.  Much of everyday aesthetic experience is a matter of bringing out the potential for animation.

The "world in itself - the world as it exists apart from us" (66) doesn't make sense.  Such a world a priori cannot be experienced or even thought about.  One would have to imagine oneself out of existence, which is basically impossible.  Moreover, to talk about such a thing is to go back to the dualistic vision of Kant, the side of Kant that the Deweyan pragmatist rejects. 

However Shaviro is onto something when he says "we habitually grasp the world in terms of our preimposed concepts.  We need to break this habit in order to get at the strangeness of things in the world...."  (56)  This is what  I have referred to as finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.   I agree that preimposed concepts can be a problem if we want to reanimate experience.  Looking at the world without preimposed concepts and getting at the strangeness of things is a matter of taking the aesthetic attitude.

"If philosophy begins in wonder - and ends in wonder....then its aim should be not to deduce and impose cognitive norms, or concepts of understanding, but rather to make us more fully aware of how reality escapes and upsets these norms."  (67)  I agree with this, except that I take a more Nietzschean line with this.  Nietzsche in his essay on truth "On Truth and Falsehood in the Extramoral Sense" recognized the problem of imposing concepts of understanding on the world:  for him, this is the columbarium of ideas, of dead metaphors, which he later associated with the Alexandrian.  However Nietzsche also recognized that the intuitive man may introduce living metaphors.  These constitute reality in a way that escapes and upsets norms.

Shaviro thinks we must go beyond Kant here, and we must speculate.  Speculation means thinking about the world of things-in-themselves.  I prefer a more Hegelian/Husserlian/Deweyan approach and just reject the world of things in themselves.  Hence I would still reject speculation.  Shaviro says "Pace Kant, we must think outside of our own thought, and we must positively conceive the existence of things outside our own conceptions of them."  But Kant has another strategy which Shaviro neglects:  the genius artist thinks aesthetic ideas.  Aesthetic ideas are not speculative:  rather they are things taken as symbols of the transcendent realm.  Thinking aesthetic ideas is in a sense thinking outside of our own thought in that aesthetic ideas are not traditional conceptions.  They are original creative ideas.  They animate things.  The things thus animated achieve aura.  

It is my view that when this happens essence emerge.  This is not the path of seeing the real as "inarticulable inarticulate mush" (67) but rather as seeing that which is most heightened in its quality of being real as also being ineffable.  The aesthetic idea is ineffable in that it cannot be described in literal language.  

"Philosophers have only described the correlationist circle, in various ways:  the point, however, is to step outside of it.  The aim of speculative to break free of the circle....attain [the precritical freedom of Spinoza and Leibniz] without any sort of precritical ...metaphysical 'dogmatism."  Although I do not accept the critique of correlationism I find exciting the notion of reviving something of the precritical freedom of Spinoza and Leibniz.  For Meillassoux this means "to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not" whereas I would say it is a matter of getting out of ourselves in the conventional way to find our deeper selves which is what achieved by the genius through aesthetic ideas and through opening ourselves up to aura in things and to the emergence of essences.


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