Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"...the intriguing insanity of religion..."

"... you’re one of the few that I’ve come across, probably the only one that is openly available for dialogue, that seems to have faced the void in all its implications, and somehow came through with his faith intact. I suppose I simply want to know how you did it."
This from Kalimere, who in several lengthy comments on a couple of posts from last year has raised in pressing terms the question of how or whether one can face down nihilism consistently and coherently -- especially now.

I think Kalimere's questions deserve a better response than I can offer, mostly because they are a version of the only question worth asking. Caveat lector: I am nobody to give out "spiritual advice," and insofar as my own idiosyncratic "spiritual" (Ha!) biography is of the slightest interest, I would think it would be as an ongoing cautionary tale. Nonetheless, I am going to offer some few reflections because I was asked, which is really what it comes down to.

One of my responses to Kalimere's assertion is almost a scoff: "Intact," indeed. I am strongly tempted to say "only a broken faith is worthy of the name 'faith,'" or some such. I am merely naming this, precisely as a temptation, because I think it is a bit of a cheap and too-easy pseudo-paradox. There are a few exemplars of such faith who I can think of -- recent ones are Sergio Quinzio, Ivan Illich, Simone Weil, Elie Wiesel -- but I don't want to enumerate a little pantheon or wrap myself in a mantle-by-association; nor do I for a moment demean (though I cannot really relate to) the faith of ordinary believers who would never dream of the temptation of cursing God or suggesting that He has always been a landlord absconditas. Moreover, as I say in the post to which Kalimere is responding, I don't see any meaning to the idea of piety that is not enacted in worship. The worship may be like Job's, but I truly hold that it must be worship, prayer. Mere "theology" as "God-talk" is so much flatus vocis, but if we want to really pray, this means using forms of worship which we find -- which we do not make up ourselves -- for if we make it up ourselves, we run straight into the arms of mere egoism, be it ever so concealed under the abnegation of the ego (and everything else). One's faith may indeed be broken, but talk about "broken faith" runs a dire risk of more-broken-than-thou syndrome. You can't contend against the wiles of the ego with a strategy you make up yourself. You need traditional forms.

But why would one think that traditional forms are anything other than "the rotted names," to use Stevens' line? This brings me to my second response. The void was not discovered by science and it has not been made especially More Void-y by it. The void has always been there. I have learned a great deal from historicism, and it's an important part of my philosophy that there has been what I'll abbreviate as an "evolution of consciousness;" but I absolutely deny that our dilemma is in any decisive sense completely new and without precedent. Nihilism has always been "at the door," to those who had the skin to sense the chill. If there was ever a real response to it, there remains one now. So I do not concede the case (pressingly made by R.S. Bakker, for instance) that our circumstance has somehow encountered a game-changer in science. Science can be carried out in a (perhaps unconsciously) nihilist spirit. And it articulates a thousand-and-one reasons for nihilism if you are already leaning -- the slightest bit, perhaps -- that way. I don't wish to dismiss that lean; I simply dispute that there is any inherent connection between it and science per se.

I take this nihilism very seriously. I am, indeed, an ultimate "optimist," in the sense that I maintain (without being able to really imagine) that "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." But I am also a proximate "pessimist" -- there is no reason to assert that at any moment before the eschaton, any given thing need be "well" at all. I am, by the way, leaving wholly aside the complicated questions of what sort of philosophy of time and history this involves; but I grant that it may well feel like insanity to "expect" or even hope for such a denouement of reality -- some kind of big "Roll the Credits" at the End of Everything. Obviously I don't grant that it is stupid, or immature, or the craven echo of our ancestors' bad dreams or bad reality; but those who want to say that such eschatology is just another alibi for denialism are welcome to do so -- I don't believe I can persuade them against their will. (I do believe there is a question of will here). On the other hand, those who want to say that eschatology is more accurately a discourse of absolute doom -- that there is an End to All Things a-comin', and it will be cold, and meaningless, like everything that came before, but this time undeniable -- are, whether they know it or not, trading upon a secularized version of categories to which they have no legitimate claim.

But unlikely though it may seem, one can also combine faith with just such a bleak outlook. I drew upon Derrida a good deal for part of the work which drew Kalimere's comments; but probably the writing of Mikhail Bakhtin is more pertinent here. Bakhtin's dialogism was often associated with deconstruction when I was first exposed to this milieu; but as also happened with the work of Michel Serres, gradually people realized that there was a significant difference. Bakhtin's work does indeed strongly claim that "meaning is never foreclosed," and like Derrida there's a strong element of play in it ("carnival," it's often translated), but it's striking that Bakhtin never feels like he flirts with nihilism, though there is plenty of dourness, as might well be the case for a theorist whose works were forged under Stalinism and were often published posthumously (if they were not lost entirely). This won't be a post on Bakhtin, but I want to recall a relevant anecdote: Bakhtin, whose work is surprisingly and esoterically shot through with Orthodox Christianity, was once asked by a friend "whether or not good will eventually triumph." Bakhtin responded sharply: "No, of course not." This, I take it, is a rejection of the terms of the question. Whatever "All Manner of thing shall be well" looks like, it will not look like triumph, even though such categories may offer a rough analogy for now. Perhaps it would be better to say, as Lesslie Newbigin said: "I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead."

In an article wrestling with Christian doctrines of eschatology and creation, David Bentley Hart, while also giving a long litany of the horrors of the world both moral and natural, then writes:
. . . It would be impious, I suppose, to suggest that, in his final judgment of creatures, God will judge himself; but one must hold that by that judgment God truly will disclose himself (which, of course, is to say the same thing, in a more hushed and reverential voice).
Yes, my faith is eschatological. But as Hart points out, this by itself does not suffice. One way of putting my own master-question, the question which in some senses characterizes my entire project, is, What is the right voice for philosophy? The right tone? And before we go to the easy, too-easy answer -- "more than one" -- I'll point out that Hart has already used more than one above, but he gives the last word -- the provisional "last" word, the last word here -- to the reverential. Yes, more than one, and yet, one. Which, when you stop to think about it, is the question of the One and the Many, the question philosophy is always asking.

My post's title comes from Kalimere's comment when he responded to my remark that "the watchword here is paradox;" it reminds me that Socrates tells Phaedrus that the poets are mad, but that "madness is the greatest of gifts, when it comes from the gods." There is another maxim, often thought to have been current in Socrates' day, to wit: "Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad." In fact, in that form the saying is not ancient -- it's by Longfellow -- but there are variants enough, that go back far enough, to justify the supposition that something like this was probably written by Euripides. And so it would seem not to be an issue not just of a distinction of the source (gods or not) of the madness, but of the motive of the gods for the "gift." Bakhtin in Art and Answerability says: "Inspiration that ignores life and is itself ignored by life is not inspiration but a state of possession." There would be, then, madness and madness; perhaps there are gods, and gods. It is hard to know the difference sometimes. One of the lessons I have imbibed from deconstruction is that there is no simple distinction to be made here, at least not by me. It takes someone with far more spiritual discernment than I to tell where one shades off into the other. The only thing I can claim is that such discernment is not a meaningless idea. In short, there is more than one sort of paradox; there is faith that is just a turning-away from reason, and there is faith that is the culmination thereof. I am sure I don't always know the difference; but I am sure there is a difference.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

From my collection


There's a particular art project I do with students every year. Art Cards are small (2½" x 3½") cards, each of which bears an original work of art -- these ones shown here are in crayon, ink, and pencil. I've been doing this with students for over a decade now and it always amazes me what remarkable results they can attain in such a restricted compass.

Children's art famously has a number of common features wherever it is found, but on a small scale their instincts are often uncannily keen and their accomplishments deeply moving; particularly, for me, their non-representational designs. Many of these works, if executed on a scale of feet or meters instead of inches, would at the very least be comparable to any piece of hotel room art I've seen. Frequently they could hang beside Braque, Kandinsky, Pollock, or Rothko.

Shifting up by a factor a 12 does not, of course, make us graduate from little kid to grown-up. Any good gallery or museum ought to be able to show you some examples from masters of the miniature. But a 2½ x 3½ meter canvas dominates a visual field in a way that a playing-card sized piece does not. It's not the difference between maturity and childhood; it's the difference between outer and inner.

While the students who made these pieces -- all between five and eleven years old at the time -- had doubtless been exposed to such art, the art cards were never a result of an assignment ("look at this Picasso, this Mondrian. What do you notice? Now try something yourself!") All I do is put the materials in front of them and encourage them to make things they like. They take some inspiration from each other, and over the years I've learned a few techniques I pass on to them, but the designs are theirs alone.

Inevitably some students are immediately excited by the project, and others are blasé. I long ago stopped requiring participation in something like this, so it sometimes happens that a student is slow to take it up. But even those who seem uninterested at first often try it, because the initial investment is so small -- after all, it doesn't take much to scrawl with some colored pencil on a playing-card sized bit of card stock.

What makes the project take off, however, is a further dimension. I cannot take credit for it; as far as I know, it was the stroke of genius of Swiss artist Vänçi Stirnemann. The cards are trading cards; they are swapped, one-for-one. This means students rarely stay at that initial level of minimal effort. To build up a stock of tradeable work, they have to devote serious effort -- not hours per card, but enough that they feel they are parting with something that has cost them creative labor, when they are asking for a card they desire made by someone else -- a card that presumably also cost effort and attention, or it wouldn't have caught their eye.

In some ways this use of the art itself as a medium of exchange is an even more revolutionary element than the small and portable size. It step jump-starts the circulation of the art and generates the magic which desire and possible attainability can confer upon it. Students experience the strange spell of wanting something just because it is beautiful, and also the delight of having made something that someone else is willing to trade for.

Some of these cards shown here were made this week. Some are over ten years old. I of course have some sentimental investment in them as well -- they are each signed on the back, and I can remember each artist, and sometimes even the occasion of the work -- but I still find that each one summons up a kind of world, an aesthetic unity, which is independent of whatever accidents of biography attach to them for me. Needless to say, I traded for each of them myself.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

John Bremer 1927-2015

Socrates had something which I would like to have myself and which lies behind my educational work. It is this: that even when he faces death, even when he faces the dissolution of his mortal life, he is nevertheless able to face the situation as if it were an educational opportunity. He responds to it in an educational way, not only for himself, but for his friends. I myself, I suspect, would be scared. I would not only be scared, I would be so scared that I would be more concerned about the possibility of surviving than I would be about the possibility of leaving this world gracefully or in an educational manner. What is it that Socrates had? I would like to indicate in a general way what I think his achievement was because it is at the center of my own thinking now.
John Bremer, A Matrix for Modern Education, p 9 (1973)

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of John Bremer on November 30.

I did not know Bremer intimately and we never met, but we emailed during the last years of his life. (How I wish I had moved more quickly interviewed him, as we had discussed.) What he may have been like in person I do not know, but I read his books and treasured his correspondence, and every encounter with his words underscored the slowly dawning impression that he was the real thing: a lover of wisdom.

He was deeply committed to learning and scholarship and he took meticulous time on careful, detail-laden readings of a broad range of cultural texts: from Plato and Homer, to anonymous English ballads and Shakespeare, to the traditional dances of England. At the same time, his close readings were always alive to the real matters. These accounts -- I'm thinking especially of his work on the Meno, the Ion, and above all the Polity (as he usually insisted on calling the dialogue usually called the Republic) -- were fine-grained to the level of syllable-counts. He articulated and substantiated a picture of Plato (and by extension, much ancient philosophy) as extraordinarily attentive to the questions of literary form. But he was insistent that these analyses only had any real point in the context of the work Plato called us to: learning how to live. When Jay Kennedy lately announced that he had discovered a musical structure to many Platonic dialogues, Bremer gently reminded readers that this claim (along different lines) had been made some twenty-five years previously by Bremer himself, to say nothing of the intersecting work of Ernest McClain in the 1970's. But Bremer's more substantive point was not about academic priority. It was, rather, that the question over whether Kennedy's claims were credible obscured much deeper and more pressing concerns with what threatened to be a swarm of mathematical minutiae.
Even if Jay Kennedy and myself have understood something of the mathematical structure of Plato's dialogues, there remains the question that Plato is always asking: How does this effect the way a man should live? Or what is its relation to the Good? If we don't face those questions, we might as well do crossword puzzles.
Bremer never lost sight of these problems and he persued them doggedly but without airs for his whole life. His career as a radical educator (though he may not have wanted the term "radical," he certainly was one -- in the etymological sense of one who goes to the roots -- compared to the status quo of his day or ours) began with re-educating ex-Hitler Youth in Germany after World War II, and took him through several professorial positions in England; to New York City where he headed a school district; then to Philadelphia in the late 1960's where he helped to found and run the Parkway Program, a "school without walls" in which the city of Philadelphia became the campus of students; then to British Columbia where he served as Commissioner of Education; to Australia where he found the Education Supplement for The Australian newspaper; finally to Massachusetts where he founded the Institute of Open Learning, which became Cambridge College.

This curriculum vitae looks, and is, very impressive; but it was not a smooth ride. Bremer and his wife Anne came to the United States together following a case of professional discrimination against Anne; later, Bremer resigned his post in New York in frustration over his incapacity to actually change the school system. He said at the time,
If we wish to improve the education of children in New York City public schools, it is my opinion that this can only be done if we can change the relationship between child and teacher, between child and child, and between child and material. To change these relationships involves the total re-structuring of the New York City public school system.
This far-sighted radicalism could only collide violently with the status quo, and collide it did. This inevitably led to more reversals: the Parkway Program, despite its obvious successes, was essentially re-absorbed back into a traditionally-structured brick-and-mortar model; Bremer was dismissed from his position in British Columbia (the Education Minister said carefully that "we both want to create the finest education system here, but we differ as to the manner in which it is to be achieved"); and Cambridge College, where Bremer was Professor of Humanities from 2005 to 2008, later seemed to him to be a disappointment, having lost its vision and floundered in financial mismanagement. (It is still operating, still accredited, and may yet validate its founder's hopes.)

Bremer never glossed over these setbacks; he simply held to his vision, and his legacy in education is indisputable, though he may be remembered by name only by a few. The Parkway Program, especially, inspired a large number of experiments in education, many of which still hold to their principles against the odds. The genesis of this project was, of course, not idealism; it was money. Bremer had been called in to help with "decentralizing" some of the city's overcrowded schools as a way of wrestling with tremendous budget shortfalls. Bremer saw it as an opportunity to do a great deal more than make ends meet:
Once the confines of classroom and school were removed, it would be possible to re-define, to re-structure, the whole educational process. The freedom and responsibility of the student could become paramount.
Bremer reconfigured the whole administrative apparatus of a public high school; it became a genuinely (and, to some, shockingly) collaborative venture between students and faculty. The school was divided into self-governing units which held weekly "town meetings" where the curriculum was planned and discussed. Students told teachers what they hoped to learn; teachers proposed to students what they needed to know. Age distinctions dwindled. Attendance was not mandatory. No letter-grades were given; they were replaced by individual written evaluations of the students' work. An informal atmosphere prevailed; "Students can smoke in class, call teachers by their first names, and utter four-letter words without inhibition," Time magazine reported. To this day there are students who refer to it as one of the best periods of their lives.

Though the district leaders may have been taken aback by getting more than they bargained for, the opportunity was ripe for such experiments (it was 1968, the same year the Sudbury Valley School was established), and the Parkway Program experienced considerable success, not to mention notoriety. The write-up in Time brought educators flocking to see how it was done. Bremer tried to make sure that no one misunderstood it along the lines of counter-cultural clichés: the Parkway program was not "unstructured;" it was structured differently. "I don't know what an unstructured experience would be," he said, and in any case no learning transpires without structure. The question was: what structures would best support learning?

I've already mentioned Bremer's close attention to Plato. The "structure" he found there was extreme; no one could accuse him of being slapdash. One example: he believed that the Polity was meant to be read in a single day; that if you paid heed to clues in the text you could discern which day of the year it was set on; and that, if you had read it at the relevant (Greek) latitude on that day, the text coinciding with key moments (sunrise, sunset, midnight, noon) would reveal a meta-structural significance.

Or again: why is Apollo, the god of poetry, never named in Plato's Ion which is devoted to the nature of poetry? Bremer has recourse to a careful reading of Plutarch, extensive music tuning theory, and painstaking count of the number of syllables in the dialogue to answer this one, which I will leave to the reader to discover in his book Plato's Ion: Philosophy as Performance.

But perhaps even more than in these readings of the ancients, Bremer's attention to structure and how it enabled learning emerged in his love of dance, especially the folk-dance inheritance of England -- dances he believed to be remnants of a pan-European ritual tradition. He knew and taught these folk dances for years, sensing his body and abilities change until he could no longer leap as he once had but feeling that in some ways he was a better dancer as an old man than he had ever been in his prime. I did not know him as a dancer -- everything about this aspect of his life I learned from his writings -- but to me it epitomizes the secret that kept him from false modesty and false seriousness alike:
The music is more important than the steps and figures. Anyway, I should know the tune and be able to prepare my body to move in cooperation with it—that kind of mastery comes with experience, but is not reducible to absolute rules. But knowing as well as possible the tune and the dance steps and figures does not make the dance; they mark off the limits of possibility within which the dance can be created.

This seems most important to me. Within the limits of possibility, the dance is created. It does not pre-exist, nor is it constituted by the figures and not even by the tune—these are its pre-conditions but they are not its essence. The essence, the mystery, is what I, as dancer, create within those limits.
Bremer knew his limits. As an educator one could enact certain opportunities, and make information available, exemplify and even train expertise. But that is a matter of setting up a structure. There the educator reaches a limit, a limit inherent in the nature of human freedom. "Each person is free to learn for himself, and that freedom cannot be exercised by anyone else," he said -- almost a tautology, one might think, but easily lost. There is, Bremer maintained, a "second kind of education,"
a kind that has almost been forgotten. If the first kind of education is characterized by passivity, by a taking in, by memorization, by submission, then this second kind is characterized by activity, by a generous giving out, and by a creativity which shows, for example, the moral purposes that the acquired knowledge might serve.

But, it may well be asked, how do we carry out this second kind of education? And the answer is, we don’t. It is not something that teachers can do; only learners can do it, and they must do it for themselves. All that the teacher can do is, first, to help the students understand what has happened to them in their prior education and, secondly, to clear away the obstacles and impediments to the freedom of creativity. We do not give students their creative power—nature has done that by giving them what may be called a soul.
Eventually Bremer came to the most basic of limits: time. I do not know just how he faced his death, but his whole life had been bent toward making it an educational opening for himself and others. In a late email he told me about last words of Socrates, that
'We owe a cock to Asklepios' ... is almost universally misunderstood. Their true meaning I am sure is that they were the customary sacrifice to Asklepios on the birth of a child.
Towards the end, his computer crashed and he lost a large amount of work. Writing to me in some frustration but without a trace of self-pity, he said that he was struggling to re-organize his thoughts, and that perhaps it would be better thus; then he added, wryly, "Horace was right, but I don't have nine years." He had, though, something better -- what Socrates had.

He was referring to the adage from the Epistle On the Art of Poetry:
...if at any time you do write anything, submit it to the hearing of the critic Maecius, and your father's and mine as well; then put the papers away and keep them for nine years. You can always destroy what you have not published, but once you have let your words go they cannot be taken back.
We are fortunate that he wrote what he did. In one of his last emails he had told me,
I only ever thought that I could do two things tolerably well: one was dancing, the other writing. And they seemed not unconnected for I am very conscious of the rhythm in what I write and of the 'figures' of the 'argument'.
A dance cannot be "put away," for it happens in the moment, and is gone. As to the writing that might have happened, it is gone too. What we have is what he published (many examples can be found on his website, which I hope will continue to be maintained and updated): work that is wise, generous, and self-effacing; that turns close analysis -- every "step" -- to the service of the largest and most open questions.

Memory Eternal.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Grammar of Miracle

A couple of weeks ago, James Chastek at Just Thomism put up an excellent post on miracles, which sparked some further reflections on my part, and the midst of Hanukkah, celebrating the "great miracle" of the oil in the re-dedication of the temple after the Maccabees' revolt*, seems a good time to put it up.

Somewhere in an interview -- I can't recall the source anymore -- Ken Wilber remarked that reincarnation is still one of those topics that you cannot mention without your standing being immediately compromised in academic or professional philosophy circles. There are a number of these forbidden topics, and you can quickly suss out the assumptions of whatever in-crowd is dominant wherever you are by just asking yourself which matters you would feel uncomfortable being caught taking seriously. (The neo-reactionaries like to push the socio-political ones in your face to see standard-issue liberals get uncomfortable.)

Miracle is high on this list. Even in many a seminary or house of worship there are those who squirm at it. It just seems so clearly to be a vestigial meme from an earlier, more credulous era. We are very confident.

Rosenzweig introduces the second section of The Star of Redemption with a meditation on miracles that is (like so much of that indispensable book, really one of the short list of great philosophical works of the last century) still unplumbed. Miracle, says Rosenzweig, is the embarrassment of modern theology, and this embarrassment is a symptom of a decisive break with classical theology, which (he says) was rooted in the idea of miracle. Rosenzweig parallels the decline of theology with a decline of philosophy, both of which had seemed to come to a coinciding triumph in Hegelianism, and both of which were compromised by fatal flaws in Hegel's system.

For Rosenzweig, a miracle is not an inexplicable event, and it need not be "contrary to the laws of nature." It is, however, crucially bound up with prophecy -- a point which marks one of his vital connections to Pascal. When I first read Pascal, I was surprised and mildly put off. I had expected quite a lot more of the moralism along the lines of "All the misfortunes of Man come from his inability to sit quietly in his room alone;" or the proto-existential anxiety in the face of infinite interstellar spaces. Instead, I found huge swathes of text unpacking the fulfillment of Hebrew scripture in the New Testament. I did not know what to make of it. But Rosenzweig's whole project -- which is at least partially glossable as an exploration of what the Biblical inheritance means vis-a-vis the sum of philosophy -- provides one way of understanding: the issue of prophecy and of miracle alike is intra-traditional. For Pascal, the issue is not a proof directed to the pagan philosophers, but to those who already accept the Hebrew scripture as authoritative. To Rosenzweig as well, miracle is a "proof" of revelation -- the miracle par excellence -- and of providence, to be sure, because it exemplifies the way "all things work together" from the moment of Creation; but it is only this to those who already believe. To outsiders, to unbelievers, and in particular to the enemies of belief (those for whom "unbelief" is not neutral and bemused but antagonistic and resentful), the miracle is not experienced as a refutation. The hosts of Pharaoh do not flock to the camp of Israel to learn of Moses, nor do the believers in Baal turn to Elijah in the wilderness after their priests are consumed by fire. The unbeliever is not converted, but merely confounded. And, at least in many circumstances, they turn to "miracles" of their own (e.g., the snakes of Pharaoh's magicians). At best, "miracle" in this sense proves to be, in the Bible, a confrontation of power with greater power. But this never validates God; it merely validates -- power.

In the New testament, this pattern is confirmed -- miracles are frequently beside the point for most people, or illustrate the wrong point, even those intimately involved. The disciples are sure a ghost is walking toward them on the water; those who ate at the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 is later told they are seeking Jesus not because they saw the signs performed, "but because you had your fill of the loaves;" of ten lepers who are cleansed, only one turns back to give thanks and homage. In short, the Biblical authors do not seem to think that miracles produce any big swing from unbelief to belief.

What, then? This is where Chastek's post on Miracles is so clarifying:
miracles ... [are] not meant to get unbelievers to believe but to get believers to change their beliefs. (emphasis in original)
Chastek's rationale for this point -- that miracles are rare and occur "at transition points in salvation history" is important but only really pertinent to those who will grant, at least for the sake of argument, that "salvation history" is a meaningful category. I'm not going to argue that here, though I will note that this is one way in which Chastek anticipates a frequent objection -- to wit, that the Bible somehow "makes us expect" that miracles happen frequently. Not so, he says:
Scripture records two thousand years of narrative history, and not a hundred years of it are great times of miracle. Even that overstates the case since we certainly don’t mean that we find a hundred years of continuous miracles when we add them all up.
Rosenzweig agrees:
The question as to why miracles do not come to pass "today" as they used to "once upon a time" is simply stupid. Miracles never "came to pass" anyway. The atmosphere of the past blights all miracle. The Bible itself explains the miracle of the Red Sea post eventum as something "natural." Every miracle can be explained after the event. Not because the miracle is not a miracle, but because explanation is explanation. Miracles always occur in the present and, at most, in the future. One can implore and experience it, and while the experience is still present, one can feel gratitude. When it no longer seems a thing of the present, all there is left to do is explain. ("A Note on a Poem by Judah ha-Levi" in Franz Rosenzweig: his life and thought, ed. Glatzer, p 289-90)
But what is really important is that the Biblical authors do regard "salvation history" as relevant (and n.b., this "history" is decisively oriented towards the future in a crucial sense), and that this casts real light on the way "miracle" functions for this worldview. Miracles do not aim to change unbelievers into believers, but to make believers believe differently. This is my own, stronger, re-phrasing of Chastek's point -- it isn't just, or primarily, or perhaps at all about the content of the belief, but about what we might call the mode of belief. Not, we may say, the meme, but the meta-meme.

In the comments to the post, a reader asked: well, what about the miracles of the Saints? To this Chastek replied, completely consistently I think: the saints' miracles are a function of the liturgy (I would have said, of the Eucharist) -- and so are an extension of the principle that miracles are "addressed to" believers.

"No, no," I hear someone object -- "the point isn't whether miracles "mean" such and such; the question is whether they happen at all. For if they don't happen, then they can't very well "mean" anything, can they?" But this is to miss the point. In fact, and much to some of his admirers' dismay, Meillassoux has (without quite using the terminology) re-opened the issue of the plausibility, or at least possibility, of "miracles" in a certain sense -- not, to be sure, as "exceptions" to a law of nature, but simply as momentary changes in such a law. To say this is certainly to interpret Meillassoux against his own intent, but the point here is not whether I'm reading him correctly; it is that a consistent materialist and non-providential account of "miracles" as "events our current laws of nature do not permit" is certainly possible. For Rosenzweig, the miracle always functions within the context of an understanding of Providence; what Meillassoux offers is an account of "miracle" (of a sort) in the radical absence of providence. Doubtless, this account has a formal ingeniousness to it which makes it an object of interest, if not indeed a kind of perverse fascination. Probably, in fact, many such accounts could be possible, so far as this formal interest is concerned. But so what? What this shows is that the notion of "whether miracles happen" (or can happen) in that sense is not the question. We could even stipulate that they can and do; alternatively, we can prescind entirely from the question of "whether miracles happen" in the sense of the big Cecil B. DeMille special effects, because the question of "whether they happen" is playing a different role for the non-believer than it plays for the believer. The non-believer who asks this way is trying to say, if there "are no miracles," then such-and-such follows -- which implies (disingenuously, though they may not be aware of this disingenuousness), that if "there are miracles," something else follows. I.e.: a miracle "now" -- a real, bona-fide, nope-we-can't-deny-it-and-we-can't-explain-it miracle -- would prove something; and so, by implication, the absence of a miracle proves something else -- something opposite. What the Biblical account of miracle implies (according to the reading I am offering of Rosenzweig, Chastek, and to some degree Pascal) is that no such thing follows. The calculus does not play out that way. That is not how the grammar of "miracle" in the Bible works; it isn't meant to offer that sort of "proof" at all.
If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
(Luke 16:31)
But if that grammar refers us to the question of believers and non-believers (a tendentious terminology that has bequeathed us an ambiguous heritage), then the real issue raised here is not the meaning of miracle at all, but the meaning of -- belief itself. It seems to me that the question of how this term functions for the Biblical writers is one of the most difficult and pressing of all.

*It is perhaps worth mentioning that the miracle of the oil lasting eight days does not figure in the narrative of I or II Maccabees. It is referred to only in the Talmud.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Philosophy, standard and nonstandard, terminable and interminable

I uphold the option and obligation of philosophy for universal and ubiquitous occasion. Philosophy may indeed "philosophize" anything. The difficulty is that, in order to do this qua philosophy and not qua opinion, it must think Everything.

The mind is an itch. It connects. There is an moment of seeing the thing in itself, and then the mind is off, connecting it to another thing, and another. Green becomes the green of the apple or the green of envy or the green of my true love's eyes or a certain wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum. The in-itself is an instant.

Socrates and Plato loved the Thing Itself, that augenblick before the mind had linked it up to something else. In order to recapture that moment of innocence, the mind has to link it to everything else. This is why its task is endless and perfectly hopeless (as Wittgenstein said of our attempts to break out of language), unless by a trick the mind can jump out of its track. The best tricks work by getting the mind to do what it does -- all that linking-up -- as perfectly as it possibly can, and then to see the gap between this admittedly exquisite performance and the transfinite magnitude of the task. If it doesn't drive you to despair, it opens you up to something more than hope. If there is a perennial 'secret' in the Guenonian sense of "secrets passed down through the ages," it is in the tradition's quiver of techniques for making the mind do this -- none of which is guaranteed for life.

The most vociferous opposition to the claim of philosophy to address anything comes currently from Laruelle, who calls this ostensible hubris the "principle of sufficient philosophy" -- a name we can understand, obviously, via its analogy to the principle of sufficient reason: "There is nothing without philosophy," or perhaps, "without philosohizability", to coin a barbarism. Laruelle has set his face against a certain style of philosophical arrogance and power-playing, and this I take to be wholly legitimate. There is a danger in philosophy, well before you get to the real capital-D Dangers like madness or even mere nihilism: the danger of arrogance, of self-congratulation, of being In The Know. Very few students of philosophy have gone mad because of it. Some, perhaps, have found the slippery slide into nihilism made easier by bad philosophy. But many, many have known and savored the delicious superiority of being Above the Herd. They think they are philosophers when they are (barely) exceptions.

I have been reflecting on this of late during my reading of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics with a couple of friends. This book is not a "treatise"; it's more like a novel in which the protagonist is your own quest. You are led along from perspective to perspective, always thinking that resolution is around the corner, always being brought up short. The first part, with its search for the virtue, culminates with a famous exposition of megalopsychia, "greatness-of-soul." By all the signs, this should be it, and seems to be the end of our quest, until one stumbles -- for the great-souled man is in a certain way not self-sufficient; he is concerned with honors, with the admiration and respect he receives from his fellows. Aristotle allows even that the megalopsychos "may seem arrogant." Well, one might say the same about the philosopher, yes? Socrates is always going on about how he Doesn't Know, but he's awfully cocky towards his jury, even suggesting that what most befits his situation is that the Athenians put him up at public expense with a stipend for life. "Seems," eh?

Plato warns in his seventh letter that, even if he could, per impossible, have written a treatise on the real content of his own doctrine, this would not be a good thing to do:
I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition, as it is called, on this topic -- except for some few, who are able with a little teaching to find it out for themselves. As for the rest, it would fill some of them quite illogically with a mistaken feeling of contempt, and others with lofty and vain-glorious expectations, as though they had learnt something high and mighty.
Well. And yet, what is philosophy, according to philosophy? The examined life, that without which life is not worth living; the sine qua non of attending to one's soul; the thing most needful. Small wonder if philosophy "seems to be arrogant;" it cannot but risk this narrow passage. Now press this further, beyond philosophy to the gospel: the most dangerous and treacherous of temptations on the way of ascesis is the risk of prelest, of thinking oneself humble and spiritually adept, when this (possibly real) attainment is only a symptom of pride. A danger to which one never knows if one has succumbed. Then the question becomes: how to countenance this without merely slipping into despair, or into indifference -- i.e., despair by another name?

I think the ancients knew very well this risk; they had certain safeguards but also knew that there was a real, inescapable, danger. Indeed, the danger has to be real, because it is the facing of real danger that spurs one on to real humility.

I happened to mention to a friend that I had been reading Laruelle, and he asked me, so what's it all about? I don't consider myself competent to unpack Laruelle for anyone else, but of one thing I have been resolutely confident from the moment I first read him, and I told my friend: "All this Non-philosophy? It's philosophy." This is pretty clear when you press the analogy Laruelle says he is making between non-Euclidean geometry and his non-standard philosophy: both "suspend" certain axioms, but they are still engaged in a similar project; Euclidean geometry now becomes a special-case instance of geometry as a whole, with various other axiom-sets as possible configurations alongside the Euclidean. Well, it turns out that these non-Euclidean possibilities were known to be possible before Euclid, as Imre Toth has exhaustively detailed. The fact that "anachronism!" may be one's first instictive response to such a claim is an index of how deeply ingrained the notion of historicism has become for us. In the same way, Laruelle's non-standard philosophy is simply philosophy qua philosophy. In my language (and, for this instance, Freud's), I would say that philosophy is interminable: it cannot succeed in "thinking everything," it can only either fail to do this, or succeed in failing. On the other hand, what Laruelle opposes is a philosophy that seems to think it could succeed in succeeding. Another way of putting this is that Laruelle is closer to the ancients than to the moderns -- a point that other, better, readers of him have noted before me. Of course, Laruelle's kinship with neoPlatonism is hard to miss (and, no doubt, easy to misconstrue -- I make no claim of understanding it in a way he would endorse). But I do note with some gratification that in an interview (in French) which was given in 2011, but which I have just read -- pretty poorly, I am sure, since my French is weak -- Laruelle confirms my suspicions:
Je veux croire que je suis un philosophe loyal, peut-être trop passionné.
I want to believe I am a loyal philosopher, perhaps too passionate.
It is far from my intention to merely conflate Non-[standard] Philosophy with some abstraction called "Ancient Philosophy," but I do want to suggest that this passion is an integral part of what has been slowly bled out of philosophy by the moderns.

But against this, it would need to be acknowledged that the ancients have a certain "coolness" to them which feels off-putting to us as well. So perhaps Laruelle also right when he characterizes his own passion as trop.

To leave things here clearly leaves a lot of loose ends. I'll try to address some of them in a further post. But it's already a foregone conclusion that we won't be able to connect everything to everything.*

*Laruelle would say that this attempt is precisely the problem -- it isn't our job to think our way to the Real, but to try to think from the Real. To this, the Biblical paradox says: Yup.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Person and Reason

Round about the dusk of the Bronze age, two different critiques of religion were stirring. One was philosophical. It is associated with names like Xenophanes, Epicurus, and Pyrrho. It took many shapes, some more radical than others, but the gist of all of them was to press the question "Really?" -- what is it, really? Why does that really happen? -- as far as it would go. If you keep on to the end with this, you will wind up with a globalized agnosticism. It's a perfectly respectable position, except that you can't actually live there.

Meillassoux intervenes at the point where modern philosophy has, roughly, recapitulated this ancient course. He tries to invert this agnosticism, whose modern form is what he calls "correllationism," into a knowledge. While Socrates may be parsed as having said "I know that I know nothing, because everything I think I know is groundless," Meilassoux says, "I know that I know, because I know groundlessness." However it must be added that Meillassoux is a modern and the correlationism he critiques is modern as well; he is not addressing the ancient forms of thought, which seem to not divert him much (he is avowedly a Cartesian).

There is different critique of religion, approximately contemporary with the philosophical but actually slightly older, which begins in Biblical writings and continues in the post-Biblical strata. It is, no less than the first critique, a scathing critique of religion -- but it is precisely a religious critique of religion. It culminates not in the skeptical leveling of piety but in its hyperbolic elevation.

The Biblical paradox is integrally related to this hyperbole; specifically the hyperbolic assertion of God's reality, rule, and love; or, perhaps better put, God's glory. (I could argue for this particular characterization, but the point of this post does not depend on these particular divine attributes; it depends upon them being attributes of God.) The uncompromising la ilaha illallah does indeed inherit the spirit of the Sh'ma Israel. The Bible begins, in either Hebrew or Greek: In the beginning, God created... The world has no other principle, says the Biblical writer, than that God creates.

It has become easy in some circles to press this home as though it was obvious. When Kierkegaard championed the notion of paradox, it was actually a challenge. It is depressing to contemplate how domesticated it has become merely by being mouthed over and over. Fashion is the enemy of thought, and can appropriate anything. Paradox -- or rather, the idea of paradox -- has become, not a challenge to thinking, but an alibi for it.

The same is true of hyperbole. "Instead of cosmic principles, darkness and light, chaos and order, etc, only the will of the creator" -- that is casually said. The matter is more scandalous than this easy dichotomy of "pagan" vs "Jewish" lets on. Myth is undermining itself here. To say that the world has "no other principle" than that God creates means that this comes first; not merely before any other principle you could name -- it also comes before "principle." It comes before "First". It comes before "Before."

The quest for principles and the tracking-down of phenomena in terms of principles is carried on in terms of reasons. Meillassoux's criticism of the philosophical quest for reasons -- a critique carried out in the name of rationalism -- is loomingly pertinent here. Meillassoux is a serious and invigorating thinker in part because he has turned his mind towards the sheer bruteness of brute fact. The name of this bruteness, in Meillassoux's thinking, is "facticity." Thought is irritated by this bruteness, and it secretes lubrication to protect itself from abrasion, a secretion called the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Meillassoux wants to face the irritation rather than salve the abrasion. Necessity is contingency, he says, and you can see this once you press philosophy's pursuits of reasons to the nth degree; at which degree, you invert not just the pursuit of reasons but the very terms of the pursuit, of reason per se. First it opens into the agnostic moment of strong correlationism, because it stays faithful to the notion of the Principle of Sufficient reason; then, abandoning this for the principle of facticity, it identifies necessity with contingency itself. What is contingency, after all? Nothing but the capacity of anything to be other than it is. It is literally an-archic. (There are local laws, of course, in Meillassoux's cosmology, but they are themselves radically unstable, because -- by definition -- they are ungrounded.) One finds here absolute freedom, and absolute power -- the capacity-to-be-otherwise is clearly both of these -- but it is the freedom and the power of no one.

Meillassoux's philosophy styles itself a critique of fideism, but it is not a critique of Biblical faith. The Biblical vision did not pursue Reason, but the Person. Its question is neither What, nor Why, but Who?. And this "Who?" comes (for the Biblical stance) not just before What and Why, but before "question" and before "before." This is what the "ontological priority" of the Person means, and it is why those thinkers who have struggled to articulate it, like Levinas, wind up stammering. To say the Person is ontologically primary does not just mean it is "first", but that it comes before firstness, before ontology, before any terms on which it could be regarded as "first." All such terms are given by this principle; but they are genuinely given. This is the personal analogue of the bruteness of brute fact; what it means to seriously mean it when you talk about the love that moves the sun and the other stars. It too, is an-archic, but it is an an-archic archē. It is why the Biblical paradox is a paradox.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"We're all temporary."

D.H. (everyone I knew called him by his initials) worked at the bookstore I frequented. We would occasionally have conversations about philosophy, as he looked over the titles I put on hold and (sometimes, eventually) bought. By the time I came to work at the store, D.H. had landed his dream job, teaching philosophy himself... well, it was as close as he would come to a dream job: a position as adjunct professor, ill-paying and forever insecure, but a job where he could do what he had longed to do -- pass on the Socratic itch.

Much later, when I was working at the store and D.H. was the browser instead, we'd still have these conversations. Once I ventured some half-formed thought about the way questions are more important than answers or some such, he sort of thing that seems crucial as you are saying it, and which upon writing it down later (now) feels a little bathetic. But D.H.looked at me intently and said, Yes; then he cited a passage from the Phaedo in which Socrates, after having built up a long case for the immortality of the soul, says (I paraphrase): "Well, then. If what we have said thus far is valid, then .... " Everything hung on that If, D.H. said. Even at that moment on the threshold of death, Socrates is not grasping onto a false certainty; he is conducting an open investigation.

The last time I spoke to him, D.H. called the bookstore to say he was too ill to make it to the yearly New Year's Eve party. I wished him a recovery, promised to pass on his greetings, and said goodbye. Two days later, he was dead of a thyroid condition no one had suspected. He'd been much sicker than he'd let on; sicker than he had known, himself. The bookstore, which bought his enormous philosophy collection, has kept a rotating philosophy window display the entire year so far in his memory. Not a few of his books are now on my shelves. He filled his columns with marginalia, mainly in a riddling shorthand. I squint at the asterisks and circles and try to guess.

I didn't write about it right after it happened; I didn't know D.H. well enough to do him justice, I felt. But this month two articles appeared about him, in the Seattle Times and Seattle Magazine, and I gladly link to them here. They are partly about D.H. himself, partly about the tenuous academic life he lived as an adjunct, partly about the way that fragile life is symptomatic of something deeply wrong in the University system. Well, I think, we all know that, right? But good though it is that attention be focused on something so broken, I don't want to reduce D.H.'s fate to a symptom. "I repeatedly reminded David that his teaching situation was temporary," the head of his University philosophy department remembers. "But like a good philosopher, at one point, he responded, ‘Yes, well, Paul, we’re all temporary.’"

Sunday, August 30, 2015

"Suffering is the sovereign common denominator": Interview with Leon Niemoczynski, part 2


This is the second half of my interview with Leon Niemoczynski, professor of philosophy at Moravian University and author of the blog After Nature. A number of conversational threads below are continuations from the first half, so if you missed that, you may want to read it first. In that post I introduced Niemoczynski, so I commend it to you for further details of his C.V. However, I want to reiterate my appreciation to him for putting so much effort, and for being willing to wear his heart on his sleeve, in these responses. I have done a bit of editing on them for the sake of keeping the flow going and avoiding a bit of repetition between questions, and I'm also grateful to him for trusting his words to me.

* * *

Skholiast:A great deal of current speculative thought arose out of a sort of exasperation with critical theory and post-structuralism. I still remember the moment I read my first sentence of Badiou – I thought, at last. This response seems to be twofold at least: an exasperation with the posture of exhaustion which had overtaken philosophy in the 1990's (various narratives of “the end of…”), and the impression that philosophy was losing itself in a new scholasticism of secondary literature. The popularity, in the US and Britain, of Meillassoux’s book After Finitude clearly marked a crucial moment in this reaction gaining critical mass. His rallying cry that we had “lost the Great Outdoors” seemed really to resonate with people; and it became possible to see, for instance, the (alleged) “endless commentary on written texts” as simply the inevitable conclusion of the Kantian decision to forego any ambition to speak of the In-Itself. As a writer who has engaged a good deal with the movement of Speculative Realism which grew out of this moment, what was your own entry with these questions? Did you find Meillassoux to be as decisive as all that?

Leon Niemoczynski: Not for the reasons you mentioned, no. Jack Caputo has aptly pointed out that the reasons why Meillassoux's After Finitude is glorified are reasons involving tendencies of thought present even in Hegel or Husserl. Yet when someone like Steven Shaviro takes up a Meillassouxian position and claims that Husserl said "phenomena depend on the mind to exist," I wince.

You know, when I was writing an article on Speculative Realism for the journal Cosmos & History, the reviewers pointed out that I should acknowledge how there was after all quite a strong tradition of speculative metaphysics in Continental tradition during the 20th century. It just wasn't as fashionable as the context-based post-Kantian approaches that Meillassoux is critiquing. So I think the critique that we have lost the Great Outdoors is involves quite a bit of hyperbole, actually. I have always been a metaphysician, and the figures that were my "philosophical giants" were, essentially, unfashionable metaphysicians!

Certainly in the American tradition speculative philosophy was going strong throughout the 20th century (Whitehead, Weiss, Hartshorne come to mind as speculative metaphysicians who were doing realist transcendental philosophy at least fifty years before Speculative Realism). Andrew Reck details much of that, in his book Speculative Philosophy, which was written in the early '70s. Normally Lee Braver's book on Continental realism and anti-realism is referred to on the subject, but really I think Reck's book – dated though it is – should be one's first read on the subject. That's the sad thing when it comes to histories that are written today concerning speculative philosophy: they omit much and deliver very little.

(Incidentally, this is true even of the history of the last decade or so. Only four or so books with "Speculative Realism" in their title have been published since the first Speculative Realist conference in 2007, but in my opinion none adequately report work of a large number of authors -- folks who are publishing good papers, producing research, and moving the conversation forward, but who, for what seem to me clearly political reasons, just weren't included in those publications. I'll mention two in particular here: Pete Wolfendale, who has produced phenomenal work (especially his recent Object-Oriented Ontology: the noumenon’s new clothes; and see Ray Brassier's postscript in Pete's book for a recent skeptical appraisal of the very "existence" of Speculative Realism); there’s also of course all of the work produced by Jason Hills, who took his Ph.D. at SIUC, and has run the blog Immanent Transcendence. I should also mention Terrance Blake, a scholar in France who consistently writes excellent papers and runs the blog Agent Swarm. In fact, it has sometimes been joked that concerning Speculative Realism, there is now something of a Wolfendale-Brassier-Niemoczynski-Blake axis, at least in the general area of speculative naturalist thought. I've once seen a cropped and collaged photo representing those four visages, but hadn't kept it, not thinking much of it. Still I wonder if there is some merit to that tetrad combination.

Now to be fair, a large part of the Continental tradition did turn away from metaphysics to all things human-centered, or to context-dependent philosophy during the 20th century: so it’s not outrageous to refer to a turn away from the real in-itself to texts, to signs, to conscious appearances, to human embodiment, to subjectivity, to human experience – again, very generally speaking. This is what Meillassoux critiques, especially Kant as the progenitor of such a human-centered or context-dependent analysis – meaning the fact that the human being is doing the thinking.

Yet I sincerely believe that very few people actually understand what Meillassoux is getting at when we get down to brass tacks, especially when things like "new materialism" or "philosophical naturalism" are bandied about in turn with After Finitude in the same sentence. That's where knowing the history of speculative metaphysics is crucial – and how having read and carefully studied all of Fichte, Schelling, or Hegel, or even the twin giants of Plato and Aristotle – this is crucial for understanding Meillassoux’s call for a post-correlationist philosophy, with the understanding that the "co-relation" is severed and then reinstalled given the reality of Absolute.

So I am not discounting his project per se, I am just saying that his call to return to the Unconditioned or Absolute, or an indifferent reality that is not even "In-itself" but simply "itself" as "itself" devoid of all things human, in fact devoid of all subjectivity – an ultimate form of transcendental materialist realism – this call needs to be seen in context.

There was, after all, a long history of speculative, realist philosophy through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To give Meillassoux credit, this philosophy we are talking about was less in Continental Europe at the time than in America, e.g. Whitehead, Hartshorne, Weiss, Buchler, and so many more. So Meillassoux's claim isn't so much novel, as it is a renewed rallying cry for a turn (back) to the speculative approach of the German idealists, to the American process philosophers. This would be a call to reconsider the speculative approach found in American metaphysics during the last two centuries. Incidentally, it does seem to me that American process thought and new versions of pragmatism are becoming quite fashionable today—though, unfortunately, often with Peirce left aside.

I think John Caputo was right in arguing that what Meillassoux has to say about the divine inexistence is definitely much more interesting (and not as philosophically problematic or even as naïve as) as his critique of "correlationism," so-called. I mean, anyone can cry out that we ought to abandon the human-centered standpoint for a more ecologically minded metaphysically realist philosophy. You can run with fashion and desubjectify philosophy as much as possible, or perhaps get with the times and declare "the end of phenomenology," all in all eliminating the human and "experience" per se. (Even pop nihilism has become fashionable.) But of course, actually pulling that off with a logically consistent, sound, functioning systematic speculative enterprise is a completely different story. Iain Hamilton Grant and Ray Brassier come closest to establishing a "true" speculative, realist project - each for different reasons. Grant and Brassier are two philosophers that I respect immensely and truly believe that the future of speculative, realist philosophy lies with them or with philosophies inspired by them.

As to “Speculative Realism” itself – it is now being called a "tendency of thought" that was voiced at the original conference. Other than the critique of correlationism – the notion that the human and world only come as a pair, or that thought and being are necessarily and always already given as co-related – it’s hard to see what holds it together. Even the idea of that common critique, turning away from Kant and so forth – even that has come into question.

Among the four original participants there is extreme philosophical and personal differences. So, in other words, "Speculative Realism" may be best characterized as a tendency or group of philosophical characteristics (materialism, realism, etc.), rather than a concrete school.


S: One more related question on this, if I may. We collaborated on a brief exposition of Justus Buchler; your interest in and being influenced by Robert Corrington and Robert Neville is a matter of record; and more recently you were turning your consideration to Nicholas Rescher and to John William Miller. While Rescher is a figure of undeniable stature, it seems safe to say that he regrettably lacks the name-recognition of someone like Badiou, to whose accomplishments his work is arguably comparable. Buchler and Miller, meanwhile, are major figures of this American stream who are lamentably neglected. This is not a result of the “Analytic/Continental split,” for these figures do not sit easily in the Analytical tradition. Do you have any thoughts on the contributions of these figures? Are there other names you consider to be similarly marginalized? (E.g. Blanshard?) And why is the American scene so ungrateful to its major representatives?

L.N. I have, perhaps to some detriment in my own career, truly followed those philosophers whom "grip" me, as Karl Jaspers would put it. A lot of what I read is simply me following intuition. As I've said, I've always been a metaphysician, either to my benefit or to my detriment. But intuition is always key, that is, where I discover something new, say a key idea or concept or figure that I think is important, I'll follow wherever the path leads feeling my way along.

I find that I get better and better pursuing hunches and lines of insight into areas of research or certain figures that are well worth the effort. I am not so much concerned with fashion as career-wise I probably ought to be, but there have been plenty of times where I end up reading a text or figure that isn't well known – and because of that fact, sometimes what I write turns out being non-publishable – but the work is nevertheless profitable for my own system-building, personally.

On the bright side, the fact that I happened to end up working in a general area of nature and related environmental thinking has indeed benefited my career. That is what is in demand now. But I am always just going with what makes sense to me – that's what is most important; one ought to pay attention fashion only secondarily, if at all. It can be catch-22. Without following fashion your research profile suffers; but following fashion exclusively burns out your research profile in five years and fashions begin to change. Go with instinct, be "aware" of the current trends, address them in a timeless way if possible, and do not be afraid to go against the grain and be heretical if you think you've got something.

Going with gut instincts has its risks of course. One risk is getting pinballed around too much – from here to there to here and there and never reaching your destination – so one should stay focused. There is also the more obvious risk of following hunches and intuition down a blind alley. Yet I usually find the stronger my intuitions are the less that happens. One thing that keeps me focused is running reading groups with current and former students. Each semester we pick a text or figure and work through it. So for example, really for about a year – two semesters just like a class – we carefully read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. It was that year that I spent a lot of time researching and re-reading Hegel, re-incorporating what works from his system into my own. Hegel: Theologian of the Spirit by Hodgson; Hegel's Philosophy of Reality; Freedom and God by Wallace; and finally Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation by Sommers-Hall; all these books paved the way for that. The "early" Hegel or "young" Hegel – his theological writings in the Knox/Kroner book - was extremely influential for me that year.

With that said, the figures you mention certainly aren't well known, at all. But to me they are important - they've opened up some areas of research and insight that I just wouldn't have known about had I not invested the labor and effort. And also in many ways, unbeknownst to many, they anticipate some of the most contemporary philosophers – speculative philosophers. An example that you've pointed out is the obscure American philosopher Justus Buchler. Buchler was an American philosophical naturalist, taught at Columbia and SUNY Stony Brook, and was a completely original, speculative and systematic philosopher who just never achieved the fame he should have. Yet much of what he said prefigures what is extremely fashionable today. For example, his ontology puts forward the "principle of ontological parity," the idea that no one thing is any more real - nor any less real - than any other thing. Today contemporary philosophers would refer to that as the idea that reality is "ontologically flat." Buchler nuanced this in a way that is actually quite Deleuzian – he, from an American perspective – is discussing immanence in an incredibly sophisticated way, all the while taking on the problems of internal and external relations, species and genera, things that Deleuze had written about but with not much clarity. A lot of ideas Buchler wrote about are precisely what one finds in contemporary speculative, realist philosophy. Even the fact that he was creating his own metaphysical system during a century when by and large it was frowned upon to even be doing metaphysics is noteworthy. Not only was he doing metaphysics, he created a completely new system -- a system which certainly can account for varying degrees of ontological scope in depth and breadth. Nature for him is orders of complexities, which themselves contain orders, and so on in a non-reducible Russian Doll effect. This jewel-like ontology of what he calls "natural complexes" – that is, natural complexities, as there are in his system no metaphysical "simples – is something many today might profit from. It's a shame he is not read more, and I don't think he will be. I've seen a few people here and there show up on my blog to read Buchler, but not many. As with Peirce, his language leaves something to be desired, hence his obscurity. The book one ought to read by Buchler certainly is his Metaphysics of Natural Complexes. The language of course, develops as the book goes on.

Nicholas Rescher doesn't seem to fare as badly in terms of neglect. I'd place him on the level of Wilfred Sellars, who, thanks to Brassier, is making a comeback (I just read a paper by F. Gironi, an editor of the Speculations journal, on Sellars and Peirce). I would actually include Robert Brandom in this camp as well simply because he is unpopular among contemporary Continental philosophers, despite his being, like Rescher, well-liked and influential among analytical pragmatists. Rescher is a philosopher of immense scope and breadth; he draws plenty of influence from his predecessors in C.S. Peirce for example, and he is remarkably clear. His clarity is certainly his virtue and is the very reason I read him.

Now Rescher doesn't necessarily prefigure what is fashionable in Continental philosophy today, but his clarity really helps him in the realm of metaphysics. I am referring to his three-volume A System of Pragmatic Idealism. Rescher is a metaphysical realist, influenced by Peirce and Whitehead, as he appropriates science in a non-reductive way and finds a place for reason, logic, and the philosophy of mathematics within the domain of metaphysics. Therefore he presents a lot of material that is just useful to have mastered when discussing those same subjects in your research with figures who aren't necessarily known for their clarity and are writing about the same things (Badiou or Deleuze for example comes to mind here).

It seems that by and large American philosophy, sadly, is usually just taken to be Peirce, James, and Dewey. But there are so many American philosophers past and present who have a lot of interesting things to say and who are fascinating to read, and who are useful in clarifying subjects that today are receiving a renewed attention. Justus Buchler, Wilfred Sellars, John William Miller, Nicholas Rescher, and so on. I think that these are just as important and noteworthy as the standard Peirce, James, Dewey list – let alone Hartshorne or Whitehead! While there does seem to be some rekindling of interest in Whitehead in speculative philosophical circles, by and large it is still small, all things compared. Perhaps it is just that the American tradition is simply dwarfed by the Continental tradition, and a lot of good work goes unnoticed. I do see some Continental theorists (mostly within sociology or anthropology) picking up on some of these good ideas in American philosophy; so for example, Bruno Latour, Philippe Descola, or Eduardo Viveiros de Castro come out and explicitly say, "Look, I am taking this directly from Peirce, or James, or Dewey," and that does give me some hope. Today the interest in Whitehead and process philosophy gives me hope. And as I've mentioned earlier, the current scene in France does seem to be picking up American philosophy again. Descola, Latour, de Castro and others had a Cerisy colloquium involving the subject. Mathias Girel works on James, Peirce, and pragmatism, has read some of Corrington's writing (on nature), and is very fluent in American philosophy in general. So that's where things seem to be going.

Finally I want to say that it's not that I simply want to repeat what others have said before in the history of philosophy so much as that I think there is still a lot we might learn from these figures, and that we certainly could apply within our theories today some good ideas that were still being developed in the twentieth century – that is, ideas that could have extremely good application in the twenty-first century. When it comes to the American pragmatists, for example, philosophical ecology, environmental aesthetics, theories of the body and sensation, theories concerning the environment, theories about habit and embodiment, are still undergoing transformation and change. A lot of what the American pragmatists (and process philosophers, and naturalists) were saying in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries helps to clarify those burgeoning contemporary areas of research happening today. Why not read, modify, and use them to new ends? I mean, just reading Peirce and then flipping to a book written by Deleuze or Meillassoux is a matter of translating the language, but a lot of the ideas and outlook are the same. What Peirce and Meillassoux cover with virtuality and contingency is nearly identical. Metaphysics in the American tradition has always been realist, naturalist, friendly to the rational and natural sciences, is process-oriented, and thus is a great lens certainly to help get clear on the issues of debate today. I would encourage anyone to just dig into some of these figures – especially Whitehead – and see what you find.


S: To return to some aspects of your work which are explicitly theological. You attempt to suggest, for instance, a rapprochement between Meillassoux’s L’inexistence Divine and the anatheism of Richard Kearney, or John Caputo’s “theology of perhaps.” This project of yours is one I am most intrigued by, in part precisely because it seems so unlikely. “Unlikely”, not to say foolhardy, since these latter figures are usually taken to be writing out of the supposedly correlationist thematic that Meillassoux so explicitly critiques. Do you think you risk slipping back into a kind of fideism here, or does that not concern you?

L.N.: That doesn't concern me only because – and this is a criticism of Meillassoux's ontological eschatology that I hear rather frequently – there is a transcendental component to it. In other words, because of contingency being strung throughout the various progressions of Worlds (Matter, Life, Thought, and then the Fourth World of Justice) the birth of deity is nevertheless something possible (he says) and thus something that ought to be hoped for. And so the belief that a future World of Justice is, itself, possible rather than a guaranteed outcome, is a sort of fideistic move in that we expect it ought to happen for the previous progression of worlds to make sense; an ethical commitment to justice is transcendentally snuck in the back door, so to speak.

So yet again (and rightfully so, I have no problem with this) justice is discovered to be the "undeconstructible," that necessity or transcendental Ideal toward which we ought to aspire and achieve. Michael Norton (now at U of Arkansas) had leveled just this criticism some years back at a conference on the "Varieties of Continental Philosophy of Religion" in Toronto – incidentally featuring John Caputo as its keynote. There Norton suggested that Meillassoux, who advocates a dismissal of anything that appeals to transcendence, betrays his own immanence by placing the conditions of possible-divine-emergence within a transcendental condition of justice, enabled by the necessary ground of contingency. Norton does here seem to have a valid point, although Meillassoux's transcendentalism is not something which I find problematic. In fact, it is partially what makes him a process philosopher and on par with the likes of Schelling and Whitehead, in my opinion, and if you read Meillassoux's Divine Inexistence what gives his process philosophy a "neo-classical" flair – just in the way he speaks of the possibility of a World of Justice, it becomes very reminiscent of Plato in certain ways..

I think what distances Meillassoux from Caputo's and Kearney's ontological commitments to a divine inexistence (not necessary, not-yet actual, however nevertheless insisting in its to-come, to-be, becoming, and possibility understood as power and virtuality) is the sort of immanent faith or hope that is tied to the emergence of this future deity. The fact that things can be otherwise than what they are can invoke an animal faith not so far away from the sort of faith that Santayana said motivates our actions. Interestingly, too, Hume placed this animal faith in the counter-factual contingency of the future: it is perhaps even essential to our survival. So there is nothing "supernatural" about this deity, nor even anything mystical or supernatural about the sort of faith we human beings ought to have in its emergence. If things can be better than what they now then simply in terms of survival it would only make sense to hope that there be a World of Justice eventually. And because of the absolute and necessary nature of contingency in Meillassoux's ontology it is not even insane to have faith in the future appearance of this deity. Given nature's unpredictability and the very nature of the hyperchaos, it makes sense to place your faith in that sort of future emergence.

To tie all of this up, then, let me end with one of my favorite Meillassoux quotes: "The authentic tradition of immanence resides in the Platonic divine, and in the gods of Spinoza and Hegel, not in the 'philosophical atheism' of Heidegger."


S: On your blog and in interviews you have made occasional passing reference to your own struggle with chronic pain. Could you remark a bit upon how this accident of biography has impacted your thinking?

L.N.: Wow, this is a question that – and I've seen this in print here as something to answer for several weeks now – I just let sit there until the time was right to at least try, to the best of my ability, to answer it. It's difficult. Very difficult. Let me try to address the sharpest point present there, which is how chronic pain has impacted my thinking. I think this will balance out the personal narrative, I hope.

I think living with chronic pain has definitely allowed my thinking to encounter the "bleak" or darkest corners of existential – and even deeper than that, ontological – explanation about suffering itself. Well, there is no "explanation," just indifferent fact that in its own tones of address to humans, or to the living, is dark, within the realm of despair, suffering, agony, melancholy, depression, and bleakness. Just "depths" of agony and the lack of a universe answering back to an explanation for why, or how, suffering is the self-reinforcing motor for life.

I think it has taught me a few things about that Nietzschean abyss of pain – that Schopenhauerian base point – that Schellingian "darkness" at the center of a spiritual-dynamical processive nature that in its creative activity creates suffering as its secondary propelling effect.

I remember Hartshorne in an interview stating that unlike Schopenahauer he believed that "life in general is basically happy….[S]uffering is secondary and satisfaction primary in the lives of creatures." I disagree with this. This sort of talk, and I've heard this recently, says "Pain is good. It helps us remember we are alive." That's true but only partially true, and if you think that, then you haven't suffered severe pain. I think that this sort of thinking, what Hartshorne said, loses track of what is deeply tragic in the world. For me it directly links to the problem of evil. Pain and evil, suffering, are related.

Schelling writes in his Freedom essay for example:
[D]oes evil end, and how? Has creation a final purpose at all, and if so why is it not attained immediately, why does not perfection not exist from the very beginning. There is no answer to this except the one already given: because God is a life, not a mere being. All life has a destiny and is subject to suffering….God freely submitted himself to this too." So he then writes, "Pain is something universal and necessary in all life, the unavoidable transition point to freedom….Suffering is universal, not only with respect to humanity, but also with respect to the creator. It is the path to glory.
You know, living in pain, every day, really has changed my perspective theologically. It has. Really each day challenges me to think about the creator, about the world as "good" as it is – and how transcendence from a naturalistic standpoint means accepting the world, good as it is, even in suffering. The situation goes past acceptance, it's past receiving the pain as a "sentence," and in many ways it is past me having the freedom to "do" something about it – to eliminate it, to be free from something that is with you every day. I am talking the surgeries, the physical therapy, the pain management. This now has gone to, truly, an existential and deeper ontological level. I have been wrought with thought over how this is happening, not necessarily why, but, yes, "Why"…in that, given my philosophical standpoint concerning the divine, its life, the question is, "Can you survive?" Is life worth living?

Still, there is a process. We are tormented, each day, all creatures, by some form of universal suffering. Each creature suffers, as does the Creator suffer (this is from Schelling too). The question is whether "to be" or "not be" – as to live in this universe is either a curse or a blessing, and yet it seems that consciousness arises only to be tormented into further realizations that it ought not be. For Schelling, "the beginning really only lies in negation." It is a divine pathos. And yet this self-negation can never be dispensed with, it is the ultimate ground of life itself. The self is only a self in the process of becoming that seeks to conquer of overcome not-being. Yet in the end, "not-being," absolute diremption or death, which itself is a fulfillment, wins out. Even God itself, according to Schelling, "proceeds" toward this fulfillment, but is tormented further by not being able to accomplish it, which is, paradoxically, the Creator's highest achievement. It is, as David Farrell Krell put it, a "Tragic Absolute," a languishing God.

If Brassier is right, the enlightened or rational realization is that the universe, nature (or, for a panentheist such as myself, the divine life) is stretching itself thinner and thinner throughout the cosmos as its lights die out, and matter begins to be pushed further and further apart, faster and faster toward a final frozen state of universal death, of a completed negation where Nihil – the heart of the Absolute – actually achieves its own self-overcoming and dies. Now, the question becomes: it may want to die, but can it?

I believe this is, strangely, perhaps the way freedom works. That is, the process we are feeling, universally now, of freedom, is tied to this sort of painful universal self-negation. And yet we must know that living, life, is simultaneously precisely life because of the force of suffering propels it toward its natural end.

So does the question of whether the deity wants to die or not, is able to die or not, begs the question of whether "it" is a person, like us, who suffers and understands. Does "it" have a personality, or is it a blind intelligence creating as a living-function that too, suffers, and proceeds toward a final universal death, the ultimate state of the dead universe where there is "truly nothing" as cosmology predicts. Even Peirce said that if contingency is the ultimate factor in the universe, negation in the counterfactual sense of "could be" or "otherness-than-thisness"– which is a propelling creative force or ground, and pushes further and further out into encompassing complexity and multiplicity within a black unity – then Absolute Mind in its achievement of generality would flatline into nothingness, not even the random chaos that birthed it. There simply would be no "more" to encompass, just as there was "no-thing" before the creation of the universe. Which leaves us with the problem: how did creation begin? just as much as it leaves us with the problem of wondering, how will it end?

For me, pain reminds me that finality, that overcoming, is only achieved by "undergoing." Nietzsche or Schopenhauer comes to mind here; or Holderlin: "Where there is danger…grows also the saving power." The universe is a tragic place, the cosmos the drama of possibility. Yet existentially we know that with contingency, freedom, possibility comes both the power for good, but also for evil. Tragically I've seen too much evil in my life to accept, at least for now, that all that happens is morally good.

Moral goodness seems to arrive later on the scene. For me, there is a distinction between logical-negative annihilation and hyperchaotic creative-positive addition, with the fact that creative addition just is, and the moral valuation of the created fact comes later. Following Peirce, ethical or moral value is only second to this. The first moment of creative activity is aesthetic, either harmonizing or disrupturing ("dirempting" as Hegel would put it). But this is neither morally "good" nor "evil" in itself.

That’s what I have trouble with. The value, the axiology itself and then how that translates into an ethics involving the problem of evil, how moral good seems to happen at a second order level, yet leaves unexplained how the fracturing, the dismembering and agony of experience ruptures into the lives of living creatures as suffering, as something felt, and how life must endure it to be life, on the first level. And that suffering is without ethical content. It just is. And for what if no final end or purpose other than total death? So I am very much in the middle of this: in dialogue with anti-natalists and nihilists, but as well with metaphysical-theology and cosmology. What is the Agathonic "Good" if it is other than a non-moral evolutionary-cosmological completion in an ontological flatline of death?

We all suffer, and have the capacity to understand and empathize with the suffering of others. Their suffering is your suffering. Their suffering is my suffering, and mine yours' and theirs'. Perhaps empathy is the answer. Suffering is the sovereign common denominator which bonds all creatures together, even together with the Creator.


S: Can you tell us about some of your most recent books and research?

L.N.: My first book, Charles Sanders Peirce and a Religious Metaphysics of Nature usually is described as a dissertation-to-book project, although what a lot of people don't know is that the book was actually about two thirds new material different than what appeared in my dissertation Even back at that time, in terms of a research profile, I was working with my personal brand of "nature philosophy," I still was embarking on doing a lot of work which was speculative, systematic, and realist, and a large framework of the book was the development of what I have been calling "speculative naturalism" – which is an outgrowth of the sort of metaphysics – realist and materialist, naturalist metaphysics – that is shared by many of the figures that I had been reading and then publishing about. This is important because my dissertation was made freely available online, and when I first began publishing and establishing a research trajectory, reading my dissertation online was a cheaper option than purchasing the book I published through Lexington, which was over the fifty dollar mark. Still, the book sold incredibly well for a hardcover and I think that it is either now sold out or there are very few copies left.

The Peirce book was a success within radical theology circles, the process community, and those interested in Schelling or Heidegger vis-à-vis nature and religion. On the other hand, many of the folks doing contemporary metaphysics had and have an extreme antipathy toward the religious, and so just felt no motive to include the book within their literature surveys. Even to this day a lot of folks in those circles tend to cut off a priori religious philosophy, or speculative philosophy with theological elements. A case in point is the reception of Meillassoux’s work; his philosophy of religion has gotten short shrift despite his After Finitude taking a lot of people by surprise and being as influential as it has. But to me his philosophy of religion is more exciting, and the metaphysics behind it, or making it possible, more entertaining and concrete.

For a while then I began developing my own systematic and speculative philosophy while publishing largely in the field of speculative metaphysics and nature, emphasizing my "nature" brand as an "ecological metaphysics." Again, seemingly because of the theological elements in my system, many of the figures with whom I was dialoguing didn't respond as I had hoped – or at the very least my work wasn't appearing in literature reviews. And then when I moved strictly into creating secondary literature devoid of theological references, I became utterly perplexed when my work was still missing from literature reviews. It then became apparent at just how political the publishing world was, a fact that I was just naïve to before that. That was when the specific small field I was publishing in ("Speculative Realism") literally consisted of less than say twenty people. My relationship with Speculative Realism, so-called, remains strained. To this day I've published a large number of articles and book chapters that aren't included in the books on "Speculative Realism" that are out there. I've done two interviews: one with Iain Grant and the other with Ray Brassier. The one interview with Grant I did go on to formally publish in Cosmos and History, as well as an article that I wrote about Speculative Realism providing it with an objective characterization of what it is about.

Since those days – it's been about seven years – I've gone on to do numerous interviews and podcasts where I'm asked about Speculative Realism, being included in its history as a commentator or even one whose own personal metaphysics is an outgrowth from reading it. I'm a believer that hard work pays off, and the things that I have published are getting a larger audience. (One piece I wrote was even through a recommendation by Ray Brassier); and I've corresponded some with Meillassoux and others who do recognize my work in the field. What's missing so far is a book-length statement of my own position rather than short commentary pieces on speculative realist philosophy.

I then co-edited two books stepping away from speculative philosophy and moving more so within the realm of "nature" more broadly understood, first again through the theological element of a philosophy of nature or "sacred naturalism," and then by looking at animal emotions within the natural world. For years (as I mentioned before) I was reading the work of Robert S. Corrington, picking up on his interpretations of Peirce and Schelling, and so wanted to introduce Corrington's own version of religious naturalism – what he calls "ecstatic naturalism" – to a wider audience. Nam Nguyen and I published a number of very good essays in a book called A Philosophy of Sacred Nature that put forward theses in religious or sacred naturalism. My own essay was actually a response to object-oriented ontology in an essay called "Ecology Re-naturalized." And then the animal emotions book was called Animal Experience: Consciousness and Emotions in the Natural World. For that book Stephanie Theodorou and I landed an interview on The Philosopher's Zone, an ABC National Radio program out of Australia. The interview was nominated for a Voiceless Media Prize, an award which recognizes the most influential reports and research advocating animal ethics.

My future research will likely be in the area of the philosophy of nature, developing what I am calling "speculative naturalism" as an ecological metaphysics. I have actually written and re-written large parts of the book several times over the years as my own perspective matures and develops. It seems to be a project, much like Peirce's house in Milford, that undergoes continual revision and change. With each addition and amendment to my perspective the ongoing shape of the whole changes some. Not drastically, but it seems to shift ever so slightly. This is something that I would take pride in, though. Because basically I'd rather go slow and careful and have only the most thought-through axioms of my system make it into the book rather than transient pieces. I am, however, most certainly not going to focus on any figure or figures specifically and instead really try to develop philosophical theses that are my own and that are logically argued and sound. A true systematic approach that is speculative yet empirically verified or illustrated in experience. If it takes another year or two to accomplish so be it, as this will be a formal statement of my system and it has to be tight. But it truly is reflecting years of my thinking and represents an organic process of my that development, much of which I touched upon earlier in this interview.

Article-wise and class-creation-wise I am doing a lot with animal ethics and animal emotions, especially looking at the role of sympathy between creatures. I really believe that sympathy is a common bond among creatures who suffer and I would like to develop a speculative phenomenology of other-creaturely consciousness and emotion. This perhaps could form the basis of a new form of animal ethics, one that is profoundly imaginative and other-directed, being based in sympathy and fellow-feeling, the capacity to feel; as well as based in a common "livingness" or "right-to-livingness" and be free from suffering and pain.

I have also been working a lot with philosophical ecology, running two reading groups last summer and this summer on the "philosophy of organism." The first year we read Whitehead, Dewey, and Merleau-Ponty, and the second year we read Plato and Schelling. I think that Ancient philosophy has a lot of import for environmental philosophy, perhaps in strange ways, but it is there. How relations or relationships among the parts help construct a whole is an immensely important idea for philosophical ecology. And that idea is there in Plato which Schelling picks up. I am thinking specifically about Plato's Timaeus and Schelling's essay on the Timaeus. So that is something that I plan to look into more deeply.


S: At the end of this interview I want to return to what I mentioned at the beginning: the two poles of your work – nature and philosophy. Having treated philosophy at length, let me ask something about your consideration of nature. In an essay you recently published at Homebrewed Christianity, you consider the way hiking is productive of metaphysics. As you well know, of course, there is a long tradition of not just retreat of the thinker from too-close social intercourse with fellow human beings into the world beyond the city (notwithstanding Socrates’ express preference for the agora), but also of the thinker as peripatetic – from the school of Aristotle, to Kant’s neighbors setting their clocks by his passing by, to Nietzsche hiking up next to Sils Maria, to Heidegger’s Wegmarken or Wittgenstein’s explanation of himself as a guide in acity pointing out main streets and byways and alleys; or the actual hikes of Arne Naess and David Abram. In fact, Geoffrey Klempner once said that if one wants to practice philosophy, one must be prepared to take long walks. Most recently, Frederic Gros published A Philosophy of Walking. My question to you is: why does this way of moving ones body about in space – and in particular, in a space that is relatively free of the marks of civilization – facilitate thinking? And does the thinking which is so occasioned differ from that which arises in ones study with a book?

L.N.: I suppose this question is fitting to the interview, because in many ways it does touch on some of the ideas we began to explore in the first question. You know, it is actually quite difficult to put into words how exactly metaphysical thinking is engendered by the very act of being alone in the outdoors, although, to me at least, it happens quite frequently.

There have been numerous studies about how meditative thinking fits quite well with activities that are habitual – running for example – or I imagine with just taking walks. I think it traverses that strange boundary between being absolutely immersed within the sort of environment that can provoke philosophical thought, and thus one is conscious of it, and then again of not being immediately conscious of your surroundings and being led by the process of thought itself (hence your allusion to Heidegger). I suppose for me the beginning point, as you mentioned, was simply being far from others, of being removed from that current all-encompassing nexus of "social media," where in fact while hiking, "social media" is really the semiotic exchanges of the living world itself minus human beings.

In the article that you refer to ("How Taking a Hike Can Lead to Metaphysics"), I mention how hiking in remote environments or locations is a form of deanthropocentrism in the sense that the emphasis is not so much on other people or other selves but on the surroundings, on the environment and the transformative relationships available within it. I think just being away from others removes that obsessive humanism that can actually stifle creative motions of thought. For starters, just being away from the sounds of traffic or noise of others, being away from artificial light, those sorts of things allows the mind to relax and be present to itself. And then being in natural environments – forests, among the mountains, streams – even just trees and the fresh air, it allows a composure that is conducive to philosophical thinking. Without the immediate demands of responding to social media, whether tweeting or facebook or email, one responds (as cliché' as it might sound) to the demands of a process of thought that is slow and careful, rather than shallow and rushed. Immersing one's self along the trail into this process of thought seems more organic than being tied to one place, say behind a computer screen, as you a are freely moving, like I said, almost unconsciously. You can respond to your body and to a process of thought simply by moving, engendering a process or facilitating a process that is as natural as walking itself is.

This may be my negative side talking but my own philosophical undertakings are always best undergone away from other people. It allows me to focus on what I take the world to be, undisturbed, thinking about animals, rocks, trees, or plants and not about other human beings. There is a solitary and peaceful sanctity to being alone, undisturbed. Nature becomes one's conversation partner, the wind, the sound of a nearby stream, animals or birds in the distance. I think it was Jaspers who said something to the effect of that metaphysical philosophy was a religious experience in the sense that you are listening to the formation of truths spoken to you from Being, from the world, rather than the other way around. You are communing with nature where, really, it’s an intense form of experience, nearly sacred I think, in that we gain glimpses and insights into the world's most essential truths – we connect with the world's creative nature simply being there in its most creative element (the woods, forests, mountains, and so forth). It's a connection between the world and the process of thought that the world has created.

Jaspers called these natural cues "ciphers," semiotic density points that are symbolic of a much deeper profound reality. They "draw you in" and invite lines of reflective insight. Robert Corrington has called these "sacred folds," numinous centerpoints of fecund natural experience. In the end, I believe this is truly the heart of an ecological metaphysics – a sort of deanthropocentric phenomenological stance that allows the world to be what it is, processurally, on its own terms, without the imposition of specific human categories or desires, although those categories or desires may after all be conducive to, or part and parcel of the real. This is – so far – the most thorough-going ecological naturalism that I can conceive.