Preface: A Philosophical Fantasy – Steven Shaviro. 2009. in « Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics » (MIT)
This book originated out of a philosophical fantasy. I imagine a world in which Whitehead takes the place of Heidegger. Think of how important Heidegger has been for thinking and critical reflection over the past sixty years. What if Whitehead, instead of Heidegger, had set the agenda for postmodern thought? What would philosophy be like today? What different questions might we be asking? What different perspectives might we be viewing the world from?
The parallels between Heidegger and Whitehead are striking. Being and Time was published in 1927, Process and Reality in 1929. Two enormous philosophy books, almost exact contemporaries. Both books respond magisterially to the situation (I’d rather not say the crisis) of modernity, the immensity of scientific and technological change, the dissolution of old certainties, the increasingly fast pace of life, the massive reorganizations that followed the horrors of World War I. Both books take for granted the inexistence of foundations, not even fixating on them as missing, but simply going on without concern over their absence. Both books are antiessentialist and antipositivist, both of them are actively engaged in working out new ways to think, new ways to do philosophy, new ways to exercise the faculty of wonder.
And yet how different these two books are: in concepts, in method, in affect, and in spirit. I’d like to go through a series of philosophical questions and make a series of (admittedly tendentious) comparisons, in order to spell out these differences as clearly as possible.
1. The question of beginning
Where does one start in philosophy? Heidegger asks the question of Being: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” But Whitehead is splendidly indifferent to this question. He asks, instead: “How is it that there is always something new?” Whitehead doesn’t see any point in returning to our ultimate beginnings. He is interested in creation rather than rectification, Becoming rather than Being, the New rather than the immemorially old. I would suggest that, in a world where everything from music to DNA is continually being sampled and recombined, and where the shelf life of an idea, no less than of a fashion in clothing, can be measured in months if not weeks, Whitehead’s question is the truly urgent one. Heidegger flees the challenges of the present in horror. Whitehead urges us to work with these challenges, to negotiate them. How, he asks, can our culture’s incessant repetition and recycling nonetheless issue forth in something genuinely new and different?
2 The question of the history of philosophy
Heidegger interrogates the history of philosophy, trying to locate the point where it went wrong, where it closed down the possibilities it should have opened up. Whitehead, to the contrary, is not interested in such an interrogation. “It is really not sufficient,” he writes, “to direct attention to the best that has been said and done in the ancient world. The result is static, repressive, and promotes a decadent habit of mind.” Instead of trying to pin down the history of philosophy, Whitehead twists this history in wonderfully ungainly ways. He mines it for unexpected creative sparks, excerpting those moments where, for instance, Plato affirms Becoming against the static world of Ideas, or Descartes refutes mind–body dualism.
3 The question of metaphysics
Heidegger seeks a way out of metaphysics. He endeavors to clear a space where he can evade its grasp. But Whitehead doesn’t yearn for a return before, or for a leap beyond, metaphysics. Much more subversively, I think, he simply does metaphysics in his own way, inventing his own categories and working through his own problems. He thereby makes metaphysics speak what it has usually denied and rejected: the body, emotions, inconstancy and change, the radical contingency of all perspectives and all formulations.
4 The question of language
Heidegger exhorts us to “hearken patiently to the Voice of Being.” He is always genuflecting before the enigmas of Language, the ways that it calls to us and commands us. Whitehead takes a much more open, pluralist view of the ways that language works. He knows that it contains mysteries, that it is far more than a mere tool or instrument. But he also warns us against exaggerating its importance. He always points up the incapacities of language—which means also the inadequacy of reducing philosophy to the interrogation and analysis of language.
5 The question of style
A philosopher’s attitude toward language is also embodied in his style of writing. Heidegger’s contorted writing combines a heightened Romantic poeticism with the self-referential interrogation of linguistic roots and meanings. It’s a style as portentous and exasperating as the mysteries it claims to disclose. Whitehead’s language, to the contrary, is dry, gray, and abstract. But in this academic, fussy, almost pedantic prose, he is continually saying the most astonishing things, reigniting the philosophic sense of wonder at every step. The neutrality of Whitehead’s style is what gives him the freedom to construct, to reorient, to switch direction. It’s a kind of strategic counterinvestment, allowing him to step away from his own passions and interests, without thereby falling into the pretense of a universal higher knowledge. Whitehead’s language exhibits a special sort of detachment, one that continues to insist upon that from which it has become detached: particulars, singularities, and perspectives that are always partial (in both senses of this word: partial as opposed to whole, but also partial in the sense of partiality or bias).
6 The question of technology
Heidegger warns us against the danger of technological “enframing,” with its reduction of nature to the status of a “standing reserve.” He demonizes science, in a manner so sweeping and absolute as to be the mirror image of science’s own claims to unique authority. But you can’t undo what Whitehead calls the “bifurcation of nature” by simply dismissing one side of the dichotomy. Whitehead’s account of science and technology is far subtler than Heidegger’s, in part because he actually understands modern science, as Heidegger clearly does not. For Whitehead, scientific and technical rationality is one kind of “abstraction.” This, in itself, is not anything bad. An abstraction is a simplification, a reduction, made in the service of some particular interest. As such, it is indispensable. We cannot live without abstractions; they alone make thought and action possible. We only get into trouble when we extend these abstractions beyond their limits, pushing them into realms where they no longer apply. This is what Whitehead calls “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” and it’s one to which modern science and technology have been especially prone. But all our other abstractions—notably including the abstraction we call language—need to be approached in the same spirit of caution. Indeed, Whitehead’s reservations about science run entirely parallel to his reservations about language. (By rights, Heidegger ought to treat science and technology in the same way that he treats language: for language itself is a technology, and the essence of what is human involves technology in just the same way as it does language).
7 The question of representation
Heidegger mounts an incessant critique of representationalist thought. As we busily represent the world to ourselves, he says, we do not allow it to stand forth in its Being. Whitehead similarly criticizes the way that Western philosophical thought, from Descartes onward, has excessively privileged “clear and distinct” conscious perception (what Whitehead calls “presentational immediacy”), ignoring the ways that this perception is always already grounded in our bodies, and in the inheritance of the present from the past (through the process of what Whitehead calls “causal efficacy”). But there’s a big difference here of emphasis. For Heidegger, representation is the problem: one finds it everywhere, and one must always be vigilant against it. For Whitehead, this concern is exaggerated and misplaced. In everyday life (if not in post-Cartesian philosophy) representation plays only a minor role. Even when we do represent, we are also feeling our bodies, and feeling with our bodies. The Heideggerian (and deconstructionist) critique isn’t wrong so much as it isn’t all that interesting or important. Rather than insisting on critique, therefore, Whitehead shows us how the world is already otherwise.
8 The question of subjectivity
Heidegger polemically questions the rampant subjectivism of the humanist tradition. He seeks to undo the illusion of the autonomous, essentialized ego, with its voracious will-to-power. Of course, this aggressive questioning is the flip side of Heidegger’s ontological privileging of Man as the “shepherd of Being,” and as the site where Language manifests itself. The subject must be understood as an effect of Language, because Language is what calls to us and interrogates us. Now, nothing could be more foreign to Whitehead than this whole polemic. As before, this is not because Whitehead is concerned to defend what Heidegger is attacking, but because his interests lie elsewhere. Whitehead does not see the subject as an effect of language. Rather, he sees subjectivity as embedded in the world. The subject is an irreducible part of the universe, of the way things happen. There is nothing outside of experience; and experience always happens to some subject or other. This subject may be human, but it also may be a dog, a tree, a mushroom, or a grain of sand. (Strictly speaking, any such entities are what Whitehead calls “societies,” each composed of multitudes of “actual occasions,” which themselves are the subjects in question.) In any case, the subject constitutes itself in and through its experience; and thereupon it perishes, entering into the “objective immortality” of being a “datum” for other experiences of other subjects. In this way, Whitehead abolishes the ontological privileging of human beings over all other subjectivities. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the differences between human beings and other sorts of beings are irrelevant; such differences remain pragmatically important in all kinds of situations, and for all sorts of reasons. But in undoing the ontological privilege of being human, Whitehead suggests that the critique of the subject need not be so compulsive a focus of philosophical inquiry.
If Whitehead were to replace Heidegger as the inspiration of postmodern thought, our intellectual landscape would look quite different. Certain problems that we have been overly obsessed with would recede in importance, to be replaced by other questions, and other perspectives. What Isabelle Stengers calls a “constructivist” approach to philosophy would take precedence over the tasks of incessant deconstruction. Whitehead’s thought has a kind of cosmic irony to it, which offers a welcome contrast both to the narcissistic theorizing to which the heirs of Heidegger are prone, and to the fatuous complacency of mainstream American pragmatism. Whitehead’s metaphysics is a ramshackle construction, continually open to revision, and not an assertion of absolute truths. It stands outside the dualities—the subject or not, meaning or not, humanism or not—with which recent theoretical thought has so often burdened us. Whitehead both exemplifies, and encourages, the virtues of speculation, fabulation, and invention. These may be opposed both to the dogmatism of humanistic or positivistic certitudes and to the endless disavowals, splitting of hairs, and one-upmanship that has characterized so much recent academic “theory.”