Future, Present, & Past:

~~ 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

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 to interview 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 often 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 chronological 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 somewhat older (judging by extant evidence), 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.

Monday, August 24, 2015

"‘Perceptual universes’ abounding all around of us" : Interview with Leon Niemoczynski, part 1

This is the second of my interview series. I am pleased to publish this interview with Leon Niemoczynski, who teaches philosophy at Moravian College and blogs at After Nature. I’ve corresponded with Niemoczynski now for several years, and it emerged that we shared an enthusiasm for several figures in American thought (some of whom will get mentioned below) whose work, we both agreed, deserves to be far better known. Eventually, he proposed that we collaborate on a short project outlining the philosophy of Justus Buchler, a figure we each regarded as both very underrated and extremely relevant to contemporary discussions on ontology. (You can read that here and here.)

Niemoczynski’s first book, Charles Sanders Peirce and a Religious Metaphysics of Nature, drew on Peirce, Heidegger, and Schelling to re-conceive environmental philosophy's relationship to the philosophy of religion in forming a new, panentheistic religious outlook that appreciates the creativity, novelty, and possibility present within the natural world. Whitehead and Hartshorne also figure large in this book, and as these names indicate, Niemoczynski is at home with both the American and contemporary Continental philosophical traditions.

Niemoczynski has authored numerous articles and recently co-edited two books, Animal Experience: Consciousness and Emotions in the Natural World (Open Humanities Press, 2014) and A Philosophy of Sacred Nature: Prospects for Ecstatic Naturalism (Lexington Books, 2014). He’s also given other interviews, so when you finish reading here you can go listen, notably at Homebrewed Christianity, and (with Animal Experience co-editor Stephanie Theodorou) on "The Philosopher's Zone." The latter interview was later nominated for a Voiceless Media Prize, which recognizes the most accurate and influential reports on animal protection and ethics that expose animal suffering and inform the public.

A note on process: This interview was conducted solely in writing; I sent a set of questions to Niemoczynski, told him “take your time,” and waited. When I got his responses back, I did a very little editing and sent the document to him for his green light. (So there is less informal back-&-forth in this interview than in my conversations with Amod Lele.)

This is Part One of the interview; Part Two can be read here.

* * *

Skholiast: It seems that your work moves between two poles: a concern for nature, and a commitment to philosophical rigor, engaging with several traditions of philosophy. Were you always drawn to philosophy, or was there a period or incident which crystallized this direction for you?

Leon Niemoczynski: Let me first thank you for the opportunity to do this interview. Knowing you has been an absolute pleasure and I very much appreciate the opportunity to answer these questions and inform others about my career and philosophical trajectory. So, thank you very, very much.

I think I was always drawn to philosophy. As I was growing up, my father would always engage my sister and myself at the dinner table with life's "ultimate questions." Why are we here? What is reality, or existence? What happens after death? Is there such a thing as the soul, is there a God? Is there intelligent life somewhere else in the universe? Does space "go on forever?" My father was always interested in the most contemporary issues involving the natural sciences, particularly cosmology and astronomy, but interestingly he was also someone who would, say, at one moment read National Geographic or Scientific American, and then Soldier of Fortune! (We grew up during the Cold War, mind you.) Besides hunting and living a rugged "backwoodsman" existence (we lived in the wooded mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania near where I now currently live) my father was always naturally curious, and a bit eccentric. His humor is, well, weird. Better, it is "out of left field." And my sister is worse, but I got it too although I am not as bad as she. But that is a good thing, I think -- that we appreciate life's absurdities and are curious to discover something new. It is important to not be afraid to be yourself.

We all, my mother included, had an intimate connection to the land – to the forests and fields within which we lived, worked, and played. This comes back to the notion, or concept rather let's say, of "nature" in your question. The natural world, or let's say nature as in the way most people understand it (for right now), is simply the world around you, yet for me it was always a place of discovery and intense experience. Whether at a young age marveling alongside my sister at the swath of a clear cut forest for a power line in the forest, or remembering walking deep, deep into the state forest simply to make a decision regarding where I ultimately should go to college…the woods, the mountains, the trees, the animals, the plants, all have always been there as that serene, if not sacred backdrop. The natural world – especially the "secret" places within the forest where I would go to be alone and just think and marvel, those places were nearly magical. Today still, I see sights within the woods, or within deep forests that stun me and spur lines of insight. But it was not until much later that I put all of that together with a coherent philosophical view about nature; a "philosophy of nature" if you will, which today is my main area of research.

When I was about 19 years old I worked third shift, so overnight 8pm-4am, at a golf course as a "night watchman." It was cheaper to have me awake watching the place than it was to buy insurance. So there I was. I hadn't gone to college quite yet, as it was that odd year in between graduating high school and then deciding what to do with one's life. I remember just being there on that moon lit golf course being in absolute awe of the beauty around me – usually amazed by the forested mountains off in the distance and how beautifully they created a black silhouetted horizon against that somber deep, dark bluish black sky, or even just being stunned by the beautiful stillness of those quiet summer nights where one wouldn't even hear crickets chirping, the moon illuminating everything with its white light. You could, almost in Zen-like fashion, "hear" stillness. Just…quiet. Absolutely still and quiet.

I was curious about Nietzsche, and I remember I would read Nietzsche there on that golf course. It was a book by Stephen Metcalf called Hammer of the Gods. Of course I was blown away. I also purchased a book, Prophets of Extremity covering Nietzsche, but also Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida. I did not understand a word of it, but it was my goal to try to. I literally read those books for about a year. I then began (trying to) read Heidegger. At 19! Without ever having taken a philosophy course! I read George Steiner's book on Heidegger, and I remember that the book would only make sense if each time he wrote "being" I supplanted "existence." Oh, Heidegger would turn over in his grave. But I just didn't know any better.

The philosophy bug bit me there on that golf course, obviously. I knew I had to have formal training to make sense of what I was trying to do on my own. I knew I wanted to understand the world around me. Nature became "being," or existence. My question was: What is existence? What is this, exactly? I mean, all of it. What is this? I am not sure why I am here, but what even is "here?" In Heidegger's parlance, I wanted to know, "What does it mean...to be?" Age 19, at a golf course! That is a true story.

In my first philosophy class I knew that I already was a philosopher, I just had to learn the skills to "do" (express, write, read, understand, put forward) philosophical ideas well. My father had an innate ability to do this in plain language. It was all of the same ideas, just expressed just a bit differently. But then again I always did have Nietzsche and Heidegger to complicate things!

This now turns to the first part of your question: a pole concerning nature, the subject of our inquiry; and rigor, the systematization of our engagement with or about nature through philosophical inquiry, or, the manner in which we proceed to investigate nature.

I think growing up in the wilderness gave me appreciation for the natural sciences as the interface through which one can engage the world around them. However philosophy, or better, metaphysics (and for me, philosophical naturalism) is broader in scope because it is not limited to what may be called "hard-nosed" approaches to "science" which might only study the immediate physical world, say of rocks, trees, insects, and so on. Science in its scope, thinking of Aristotle, is almost as broad as metaphysics. After all, "meta" for Aristotle meant "about, beyond." So physis was "nature," and "meta" "physis" was "about, beyond, or 'after nature'". To try to think "outside" of or "beyond" or "after" nature is still within nature, and so metaphysically nature is as far as you can go. But my view is that any sort of reductive scientism, or "bald naturalism" (thinking of McDowell), or materialisms which cannot account for the dynamics of nature will not get to the bottom of the things, they will not comprehend reality in its widest reach. What would be needed is a vital sort of materialism, a new understanding of naturalism.

The "rigor" – that other pole you mention - is established, frankly, I think, by reason. And not necessarily human reason per se, as I think reason, inference, is something truly universal for even intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos would need to make the same sort of connections, inferences, and judgments – at least in terms of sheer causal function if those intelligences experience time in the same way that we do. Still, intelligence is something that might be universal. Awareness that what is happening is, indeed, after all, happening. That is key. And that is the basis of reason, or the function of inference which is, not just human, but actually quite inhuman, for it pervades the world. Thus, as Kant said, "One reason, one philosophy." The expressions of that one reason, of course, are infinitely diverse and amenable to the evolutionary courses of life that establishes them. Peirce saw this with his natural semiotics. Information, but also intelligence, whether biological or otherwise, pervades all of nature. Whether or not there are creatures there to express it in some way, or how living organisms express intelligence and convey information, is a different story.

It amazes me that the power of reason has a reach that extends into infinity, into the furthest reaches of space and reality as we know it. We can reason about (and mathematically describe, and logically infer) other universes that are so far away they have no empirical causal connection to us! Yet we can think about them. So I cannot underestimate the absolute power of thought. And that thought needs to be organized, clear, and comprehensible. Still further, if reason is to make claims about reality, to describe what reality is, then it ought to be grounded with the sort of rigor that can withstand critique, or better, that can withstand what future experience will make of it, much like a scientific hypothesis. So rigor, for me at least, is most available actually from the rational sciences: mathematics, logic. Because human thinking and the use of reason by human beings is part and parcel of nature – we are a part of nature – then that very process of thought, if truly isomorphic to the generative conditions of the natural world which created it should in some way be able to describe reality as if the mere one person using that process were not there. The process itself stands alone without reference to the human being observing and using it. So the rational sciences, but also logic, mathematics, is incredibly important to me in my research as I try to begin to describe nature. Which is strange because what Continental philosopher is interested in the philosophy of mathematics?

But really, Deleuze was a mathematician. So is Badiou. And Meillassoux relies heavily upon the mathematical via set theory to make his arguments. On the other side of the ocean Charles Peirce was a mathematican. As was Whitehead. So, then, again, maybe I am on to something.
Let me end this response with my favorite quote from Charles Hartshorne, as it is appropriate: "Logic is the backbone of philosophy. And nothing is quite clear logically unless it can be put mathematically. Ideally at least, a philosopher should be a mathematician and logician as well as metaphysician. Perhaps this could be said of Plato, certainly of Leibniz, Peirce, and Whitehead."

Rigor is not just for the dead, it is for the credible.

S: Your first book was on C.S. Peirce, and grew out of your doctoral dissertation. Peirce is, for many readers (including myself) a very challenging thinker – difficult to follow, and difficult to see how various aspects of his thought fit together. What was it about Peirce that you found so compelling?

L.N.: There's actually a story behind how I became interested in Peirce. Actually, there is a story here about how I even became interested in American philosophy, process philosophy, etc. generally.

While in graduate school I was very much interested in and specializing in Continental philosophy. Heidegger and Deleuze were the two figures that I was concentrating on due to the extension of Nietzsche's ideas that had impacted me so greatly. Although like most other Continentalists I had also studied and appropriated a rather long and standard list of figures anyone studying Continental philosophy would know (Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Ricouer, Foucault, Derrida, etc. etc. etc.) – and by this time I also had a strong background in the history of philosophy including German idealism, 19th-century philosophy, but also Ancient and Medieval philosophy.

I had been accepted into several Ph.D. programs, but as a Master's student I had taken a graduate seminar on William James and being influenced by that had also applied to the Southern Illinois University of Carbondale (or "SIUC") knowing that they would have much more in the realm of American philosophy in connection to Continental philosophy, given the faculty there. William James' philosophy had truly excited me as never before, his "radical empiricism" and pluralism, and I believed he was compatible with the philosophical ideas that I had been developing so far. I remember a classmate wrote and delivered a presentation on James and Heidegger. A sort of comparison of the two and their similarities as he "introduced" Heidegger through James. I sensed that pragmatism, too, was compatible with my triad (at that time) of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Deleuze – Deleuze who I discovered on my own during my last year of Master's degree through his little book on Nietzsche simply titled, Nietzsche and Philosophy.

I remember there in the Master's program we became aware of the St. Louis Hegelians, Bostonian Personalism, and other obscure American movements. Our favorite was hearing about the personalists Peter Bertocci and Borden Parker Bowne, as our mentor there had taken his Ph.D. from Boston University. I remember reading Bertocci's book on religion and existentialism, and trying to read Santayana, but I couldn't quite grasp him, nor did I really agree with him. Bertocci seemed the better option just for curious interest. Little did I know that that whole experience in the seminar in William James and all of the surrounding (at the time) obscure philosophers of the time would come to the fore later on at SIUC as a major interest for the Americanists-German idealists, including folks like Randy Auxier and Doug Anderson.

As it turns out I was offered the best deal/scholarship from SIUC and decided to go there, excited that they were the premier school in American rivaling only Penn State. So I knew that I'd be learning a lot more American philosophy in addition to adding to my Continental interests.
While there, I believe it was my second year, I was in a graduate seminar on Heidegger – and I'll never forget that the person with whom I was supposed to work had debated a translation I had made of Heidegger's during a class presentation that I was doing. Because of that experience I felt that when it would come to beginning my dissertation working with another scholar there might be a better fit. It just so happened that at the same time as the Heidegger seminar I was taking a seminar in the American Transcendentalists (so Emerson, Thoreau, etc. etc.) and because of that seminar I was beginning to work on some things with Hegel and Schelling, given German Idealism's very close connection to American Transcendentalist and Idealist philosophy in the 19th century.

So, given that I enjoyed the personality of the person teaching that class – Doug Anderson - I approached him about advising my dissertation. That was a major, indeed very major transition point for me.

Anderson was a Peirce specialist and former Penn State person who studied under Carl Hausmann (himself someone who worked with the connection between American philosophy and German Idealism). Anderson wasn't much into Heidegger, but because of his Peirce specialization and studying under Hausmann, he knew quite well German idealism, Hegel, Schelling, and so on. I remember reading Heidegger's book on Schelling, Schelling's Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom, a very important book actually if you read Heidegger. And so Anderson and I could converse through our common interest of Schelling, who was important for Peirce but also important for Heidegger. Thus I began my journey deeper into the world of American philosophy.

Under Doug I began taking all courses in American philosophy, and during the next two years this became my second and equally strong specialization, alongside my former studies of Continental philosophy. Philosophical ambidexterity, so to speak.

So I began taking courses in American philosophy including process philosophy, American pragmatism, philosophical naturalism, American Transcendentalism, American Idealism, and so forth. I had also loaded up on seminars in the world of German idealism: one on Hegel's Phenomenology, one on Schelling's Freedom essay, one on Kant's first critique and third critique, and then another I think on Fichte. It was during that time – perhaps in my next to last year - that Doug introduced me to Peirce through a graduate seminar, which was on Peirce of course, but we were really focusing on Peirce's connection to Schelling and German idealism and then idealism's connection to the philosophy of religion. We had a person come – Ivo Ibri (he’s now president of the Charles S. Peirce Society) – to deliver a talk on Peirce, Schelling, and the philosophy of religion. That was the direction I was going, and those experiences only deepened my interest in the subject. Ibri's talk was monumental…we were all intensely taking notes, and at the conclusion of the talk he approached me specifically about Peirce and Schelling. I was honored but also slightly embarrassed of course. Anderson was taking photos and it was just a big occasion.

Ok, on to the next part of your question: What is it about Peirce that I find compelling, you ask? Peirce is an American genius. What he accomplished is truly amazing. He actually was developing predicate logic (propositional logic or quantificational logic in other words) prior to Frege, whose notation is typically used, and who is usually credited for developing it. Now that sort of logic had such an impact because until then philosophers were using Aristotle's syllogistic logic! So, I mean you are going from Aristotle to Peirce/Frege. That is tremendous in itself, I think at least.

Peirce was also the founder of pragmatism. Or, as he titled his own version of it, “pragmaticism” -- because pragmatism was such a compelling idea that William James picked it up immediately, and Peirce wanted to distinguish his version from James'. An entirely new chapter in American philosophy began with that; commonly today when people say "American philosophy" they really mean pragmatism. Peirce, James, Dewey – so many times American Philosophy as an area of study is just boiled down for many to those three thinkers. But Peirce was pragmatism's progenitor. Yet he also made discoveries in many other areas of philosophy, science, and logic. For example he was crucial in the development of semiotics – essentially developing semiotics as a formal science of signs. He also made astonishing discoveries in fields as diverse as chemistry, mathematics, logic, statistics, and computer science (having developed the idea that logical inferences could be carried out by switching electrical circuits, an idea that would have to wait until much later when the first computers were created). He many wrote fascinating works in the areas of ethics, aesthetics, phenomenology, philosophy of mathematics, cosmology, and religion, too. The philosopher Paul Weiss called Peirce "the most original and versatile of American philosophers and America's greatest logician." He just wrote a lot on an astounding array of topics. If I remember correctly he wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 handwritten pages!

For me, personally, it was Peirce's biography (detailed by Joseph Brent in his fantastic Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life) that really brought me into the fold. That and the very first book introducing me to Peirce – not recommended by Anderson by the way – namely Robert S. Corrington's An Introduction to C.S. Peirce. Corrington was on the "fringes" of Peirce scholarship and his interpretation of Peirce was certainly heretical, speculative, and radical. Just my cup of tea.

I remember when I had decided to work with Doug and knew I'd be taking some courses in American philosophy that it would be wise to read some introductory secondary literature to orient myself. I was walking the stacks at SIUC's library and Corrington's book just happened to pop out among the others. It was Corrington's book on Peirce, and Corrington's way of interpreting Peirce, that really made a difference for me in "getting" Peirce from start, and that is usually where people have trouble simply because Peirce is so tough to read and comprehend if you haven't had any exposure to him.. I suggest that anyone who wants to get into Peirce read Corrington's book. Really! It is the book to read if you want to realize how Peirce can do so much. Wow, thinking back, what about my entire career would be different had I not found that book!

I came to know a Peirce that not many others know, actually. Peirce had trigeminal neuralgia, a debilitating nerve condition causing chronic pain in the face. Those who have it report feeling like they are being electrocuted or shocked, and the worst part is that it comes on out of nowhere, can last ten minutes, or an hour, and then disappears. Among nerve conditions that cause pain it is the worst one to have. And Peirce lived with that every day of his life.

The other dimension of Peirce that others are mostly unaware of was his chronic depression, even manic depressive disorder. Peirce had a "dark" or "existential" existence most certainly. He never achieved the academic success that he deserved (in his lifetime) and died broke and destitute. He was a very odd figure of course, interested in gambling and money making schemes, dressing in Parisian "high fashion," but he also was involved with a woman (Juliette Froissy) whom today we would call "gothic" or even "pop nihilist" – looking forward to Thacker's In the Dust of this Planet (avant la lettre). She dressed all in black and had an interest in the occult and all things "dark." When I visited the Peirce house, Arisbe, in Milford, Pennsylvania (my sister actually lives in Milford) I took some great photos of her all-black garb. So Peirce and Juliette were certainly very odd people, but also sincere, and warm-hearted.

Juliette, now married to Peirce, ventured into the cooperative housing project known as "Arisbe," named after the colony city-state in Miletus. They sought to continually add to the house, spending all of their money on it imagining it as a sort of philosophical island. But they put all of their money into this house and yet it was never finished. And they certainly weren't strangers to suffering, given the fact that they were broke most of the time! One more thing: the Peirce house is outright spooky. They showed us the room in which Pierce died in his bed, which is now an office for the State Park Service. Very, very creepy place. But a sort of "mecca" for the Peircean specialist.

Many people think Peirce is just some mathematician, logician, chemist, scientist, semiotician whose prose is incredibly, well, awkward, as in "clunky" – which it is – but they do not know the Peirce that I know. They know Peirce basically for two (early) essays, "The Fixation of Belief" (1877) and "How To Make Our Ideas Clear" (1878). Then they avoid Peirce, because he is mostly impenetrable in those two essays, as interesting as they are. Yet if you read his Monist papers of the 1890’s -- "The Architecture of Theories"; "The Doctrine of Necessity Explained"; "The Law of Mind"; "Man's Glassy Essence"; and "Evolutionary Love" -- you'd be hooked. That is really the "meat" of Peirce in those essays, I think at least.

In any case Peirce had made his way to teach at John Hopkins University, teaching there basically as an adjunct, and because of his romantic involvement with Juliette while he was still legally married to his first wife, although they were separated, John Hopkins thought that that was too controversial and chose not to rehire him. Yet he taught John Dewey his first logic class and created a philosophy that William James took as his own! Nevertheless, Peirce was let go from his job. This so devastated him that he decided to build his own philosophical outpost, Arisbe, and bought 2,000 acres of property in Milford. This property is now mostly owned by Gifford Pinchot, although people are able to hike on this property, as it is connected to the State Park and open to the public. Peirce eventually wound up broke, living in poverty for the rest of his days. In the winter he was unable to afford heat, and lived on hand-outs from others, including William James.

The Peirce papers are housed at Southern Illinois Carbondale, and I remember reading letters from Peirce to others complaining of his pain, of "brain fever," of sleeping in a frigid home, of arthritis, depression, chronic nerve pain (and nerve pain is indeed the worst form of pain one can have), of not having any money to pay bills and so on. He literally was writing article after article for The Monist to survive. So the bulk of his creativity came from these insane conditions. It’s just mind blowing as to what he went through.

What attracts me to Peirce's philosophy is that, as with Kant or Hegel (both of whom Peirce wrestled with for the duration of his career), I am fascinated by its technical capacity. It's the sort of philosophy that is just so technically intricate – like some sort of engine or machine or watch –that you can go back to it again and again, and each time you do you come away with something completely new. The level of subtlety and sophistication, of care and deep thought written into each concept…as if each concept has its part to play in the larger ever-developing machine is what attracts me to that sort of "systematic" and "speculative" philosophy. Just like working with one of the world's most accurate watches, with all of its minute parts and intricate interrelated details, small gears and parts, each playing a role in the larger process of the machine splitting time and seconds. And Peirce's philosophical ability is second to none. Really. He is, as James put it, America's Aristotle. Just an absolutely brilliant mind, and his philosophy evidences that. It of course is a turgid, technical style. And it takes some getting used to. Especially his vocabulary. But when creating new concepts that is warranted to a degree. Heidegger and Deleuze did the same. But the profit of working through it is enormous.

So why does hardly anyone read Peirce, then? Simply put: Peirce suffers what Hegel or Heidegger or Deleuze suffers – the fact that their language is so off-putting that one just gives up. The problem is that there are no Peirce specialists who would want to represent him to a Continental audience, and no Continental interpreters who would want to (in an interesting or relevant way) re-introduce him to an American audience. And thus the fact that Peirce's ontology is in many respects very much like Schelling's or Deleuze's or Whitehead's, who are enjoying a rekindling of interest, is lost. Perhaps it fits with Peirce's life: even today he is subjected to such adverse conditions in the popularization of his thought. His philosophy continues to tell the tale that "not much in life comes easy." That life or nature can be devouring and monstrous and full of misfortune and suffering.

S: In your book you venture a reading of Peirce that treats his category of Firstness as a kind of pure possibility. One can see why this reading appeals in the contemporary climate; modes of possibility and virtuality are privileged more and more in the wake of Deleuze. One sees this especially in the ontology of Meillassoux, for whom the possible is an unboundable realm of transfinite scope. And yet, I feel a concern when I try to think along with you in this book, that you in effect “deify” possibility. This is problematic because, after all, while Possibility is perhaps the most protean of ontological categories, it is difficult to argue that it is, per se, personal. The question then arises to what degree you are propounding a theism (which I take it is part of your larger project). Do you grant this objection, and do you think it warrants a response?

L.N.: True, I had found out during my dissertation research phase that Peirce actually accounted for over sixteen forms of possibility. Sixteen! So, while Peirce had what, following Deleuze or Meillassoux, an account of "the virtual" (which is different from "the possible"), he included that under the title of "possibility" while wanting to keep the distinction, which he shouldn't have done. He also distinguished possibility, a form of it at least as he included it in that list of sixteen, from the potential and the virtual, which are more like ontological powers in the Aristotelian tradition. His theory of infinitesimals is very close to what Deleuze had in mind with his "lines of flight." Interestingly both Peirce and Deleuze had worked with the infinitesimal calculus and came up with nearly identical ontologies to explain it. Hardly anyone recognizes this.

In terms of "deifying" possibility really what these figures are pointing to, Peirce, Deleuze, but also Whitehead and Meillassoux, myself following them to some degree, is the concrescence of the virtual into this world – a sort of modal phasing of what is not (but yet what can be) to what actually is. What's interesting is that Meillassoux, as you point out, treats the virtual as a realm of potential, power, and creativity – a sort of transcendental ground of becoming, and without it there is nothing.

I once wrote a paper about this that I presented in Toronto, on Meillassoux's process philosophy, how he relates to Peirce, Schelling, and Whitehead. I think that the theistic element of Meillassoux comes from attributing to that ground, that motor for becoming in the form of contingency, a certain form of integrity given its absolute and necessary function that no other name other than "deity" or "divine life" or "divine process," "God" if that is what we mean by that, would suffice to describe its importance and power. After all, it is even to such a ground that Meillassoux suggests we ought to turn in order to expect a deity "as a person" to appear to right the injustices of the past and usher in a new World of Justice. So, given this ontology, a very unique theology may be supplied. One that looks nothing like what has been produced before, although a few were on to it: Peirce, Whitehead, Hartshorne, Schelling, and perhaps in very limited ways Deleuze. Caputo remarks that it looks like a theophany in Deleuze, an immanence that contains within it transcendence. But insofar as this virtual realm of creativity and becoming may take on a theological significance, it suggests that Meillassoux, Deleuze, Schelling are indeed on the same page. It is a very interesting idea which I think has credibility and I would like to incorporate it into my own theological position.

The question, of course, as you point out, and this is what I am struggling with now as I develop such a theology that recognizes all of this, is that how do you go from an impersonal, creative virtual "ground," Abgrund, "abyss" as it were, to a personal God. That is quite a difficult maneuver. Now, I wrote an article "Speculative Naturalism: A Bleak Theology in Light of the Tragic" that picks up on that, especially in light of the problem of evil. But one clue in trying to answer that, I think, is Schelling's obscure and dark "Freedom" essay, where the abyss is found right within the heart of God, and as such enables God to suffer and understand human sufferings. So that necessary realm of contingency is what Schelling identifies as a sort of counterfactual abyss of freedom found within the core of the divine life. A very intriguing idea which enables God, as Whitehead says, to be "fellow sufferer who understands."

S: You have dealt less with Peirce in writing since this work. While it is not unusual for a thinker to move on from the themes of their first book, I wonder: Is this a conscious move? And if so, does it signal a change in interests or is it simply a desire to make sure you don’t get boxed in to a narrow specialization?

L.N.: That's right. I've indeed moved away from Peirce since dissertation-to-book days and have gone on to do different things.
I'm not sure whether or not it was a self conscious move – I knew that my Peirce interests were grounded in Continental thought, and other than Heidegger (it was Peirce's connection to Heidegger, mainly through their understanding of possibility and transcendence, a connection that I learned about by reading David Jeremiah Higgins' Possibility in Peirce and Heidegger: A Propaedeutic for Synthesis) I saw that Peirce is strongly connected to Schelling. And at the time during dissertation research phase, and moving from a Nietzsche-Heidegger-Deleuze axis to a Peirce-Heidegger-Schelling axis, I certainly came to see that "nature" as a concept was going to be a big part of things. And you can see how given my own biography that would really shape where I was going for, well, even until now. It was all three's process understanding of nature - and do check out what's out there on Heidegger and process philosophy, some very good material, especially Heidegger and Whitehead: A Phenomenological Examination into the Intelligibility of Experience by Ron L. Cooper, a very good book – that during dissertation phase had a great impact upon me. I was developing my own "nature ontology" as it were, or say "process ontology of nature." And with a process ontology of nature I was off to the races basically to discover, as I would find out, a philosopher by the name of Alfred North Whitehead.

I remember that my very last year at Carbondale I was finishing up Peirce and Schelling nature things and came upon Whitehead really by accident. I hadn't taken a seminar exclusively on Whitehead, although he was frequently mentioned, but I can never emphasize enough how important Whitehead was my own development. So much so that the year after I graduated I spent the entire year reading Process and Reality. And then the next year I went on to read everything by Whitehead that I could find, and much of what his student, Charles Hartshorne, had to say as well. Both Whitehead and Hartshorne fit neatly into what is usually called the Peirce-Whitehead-Hartshorne axis, which about a year or two after completing my Ph.D. I took as my own. And of course they are each significantly connected to Schelling's process philosophy, which makes sense. They have their ties to Heidegger, to Deleuze certainly. And so for two years right at the cusp of graduation and then after I came to see the world of process philosophy through the eyes of Peirce-Whitehead-Hartshorne. This does not come out in my dissertation at all explicitly, but reading it you can see them there dimly. Again, it wasn't until after a year two that I graduated that I took that axis as my own, having mastered the latter two figures of that triad.

After that and just until recently – I'd say up until just last year – I had been reading, studying, and incorporating into my own system Deleuze's process ontology. A sort of tetrad if you will. John Caputo has some rather excellent seminars on Deleuze's Difference and Repetition that I took several summers listening to. Very good stuff there. But, it, too, fits with my nature-process ontology. I think Deleuze was probably just as important, if not even more important, than say Heidegger for 20th century metaphysics. Heidegger's philosophy bottoms out as it either becomes too bare for Naturphilosophie, or else is too anthropocentric; whereas Deleuze's metaphysics is quite rich. Although Deleuze has a tough time fitting with my theological interests, there is some work out there on Deleuze and theology: Christopher Ben Simpson Deleuze and Theology; Theology After Deleuze by Kristien Justart; and the edited anthology by Mary Bryden, Deleuze and Religion. Those are good places to start.

These days, rather than simply figures as Continentalists often study – so focusing in on Deleuze or Schelling for example, "nature" has become a general and main area of research for me that has enabled me to take on more encompassing conceptual arrays and – let's say – new philosophical "locations" of study – such as environmental philosophy, as it has a connection to a "philosophy of nature." Or animal ethics, a connection to a "philosophy of nature." Or philosophical ecology, again – connected to a "philosophy of nature." So going on to concentrate in the philosophy of nature has proved broad enough to open up a lot of doors. In terms of a research profile that has been very helpful and is directly connected to my most intense interests of concern.

So to your question, I think the stars aligned during that dissertation phase as I was pushed into the world of "nature" as a "nature philosophy" – philosophically specifically from a process perspective. Of course these days I realize that my whole project, or "brand" if you will, is "nature." It's good because when folks ask what I do in philosophy I usually respond "philosophy of nature," and they immediately have a sense for what I am talking about.

S: You co-edited a book (with Stephanie Theodorou) on the emotional lives of animals, and the ethical implications of the scientific work which establishes the plausibility of this claim. I want to explore with you aloud some part of the response I had to this work. On the one hand, I felt myself fundamentally in emphatic agreement; Of course animals have experience, and of course this experience is not simply of pleasure or pain – not simply about, say, being hungry or satiated, afraid or calm; it extends to animal analogues of eagerness and affection; of excitement and play; or of dejection, grief, anger. Anyone who has had a pet dog or cat or guinea pig, or watched birds or squirrels in their yard, ought to be able to testify to this. That various animal scientists could point to clinical, neurological, and field evidence to this effect was simply a great confirmation.

And yet, this confirmation also occasioned for me a strong reaction of what I think I can accurately describe as indignation. What is this “Science,” I wanted to ask, that deigns now to “confirm” the experience of every 10-year-old with a golden retriever? I don’t claim that this reaction of mine is very sophisticated, or even defensible; it was a reaction, which I then had to think through. But the emotion of indignation is made all the more keen when I reflect upon the very bad track record which western science has had with animals – not only its countenancing of horrors like vivisection, but its readiness for centuries to describe animals in terms diametrically opposed to those exemplified in your book. So my question is twofold: First, do you think it is important that science testify to us concerning the experience of animals, and if so, why? And secondly – though this may venture a bit afield from your primary concerns: Is this apparent sea-change in science a mark of something inherent to science itself, or is it simply a matter of a different deployment of research strategies, “neutral” in themselves, for a research programs now configured so as to ask after human similarities with [other] animals rather than our differences from them?

L.N.: I think your reaction is justified. Science today, regarding animal experience, is in a quandary in that science simply works by hypothesis and empirical observation. Philosophically we need to widen conceptual boundaries that would animate these scientific hypotheses and open their generative and dynamic processes. I think we are beginning to see such a move in contemporary philosophical cosmology, where physicists, for example, are theorizing about multiple universes or worlds and so forth, the actual creation of universes – a topic long discussed by philosophers in ancient Greece.

My own philosophical position is that if science can integrate a broadened understanding of animal experience, especially animal emotions, then there would be more concrete evidence that we might use to justify the notion that we ought to interact differently with nonhuman animal species. But I also think that this applies to other nonhuman forms of life than just say, cats or dogs and so forth as you mention in your question. The science behind all of this has actually convinced me change my mind about fish as well, and also to have a healthy respect for the vegetative life we harvest. For example it is now beginning to be established that crabs feel pain, as do fish, even without a neo-cortex. Fish can feel stress, and have also been observed exhibiting forms of "personality" through preference. And this is fish we are talking about! How long neglected in animal ethics! But just the very notion that a living form can feel pain and is aware of it, wants to avoid it, such as a crab, has really changed my mind about animal ethics, about how I live my life. That changed my mind about eating those forms of life, any form of life, really, after much research. But of course, the question arises -- an extreme philosophical question -- if panpsychism is true, then what is not living?

To be honest, like you, I did have an initial reaction. It certainly was an existential reaction. I happened to stumble across a video online, like anyone else, and was absolutely horrified by what I saw. My first thought was, "Ok, a pig is as intelligent as a dog." And many choose not to eat dogs knowing how intelligent they are, that they are pets or companions (and I now do believe animals can have "friends," and as companions to humans can be "friends" with humans. Even to many today this is an outrageous idea, that animals can have friends, but I believe it to be true).

A thinking, feeling creature, who is a subject of a life with its own feelings, intentions, emotions, pleasurable and painful experiences, and desires, is what you are eating. I couldn't consume a cat, knowing what I do about them, so therefore pork (and meat in general, knowing what I do about cow intelligence) and just all meat became out of the question for me. Only then did I do the research into the scientific corroboration of some of these claims come under review.

But I think we need it. We need some way to empirically justify and secure these claims that fit with our moral intuitions about other species of life. The weird part is that in my studies, which spans the science behind it, but also much of the philosophy – not so much philosophy of mind per se, that is my colleagues area of interest, Stephanie Theodorou – I was more interested first in the history of animal treatment as seen through the eyes of philosophers, so things like Descartes saying that animals are nothing other than robotic automaton, or basically the history of the Medieval human-animal ontological separation pace Aquinas and his treatment of animals, and how that spawned a hierarchical ontology with humans at the top. And this sort of understanding, that humans are separate from other animals, dominate to them, that animals are not aware and are simply there for our use and consumption, dominated religious understandings of animals for quite some time. At Catholic institutions where I've taught – and I've taught for Catholic institutions my entire career until now – that is the understanding. Humans are closer to God than the other creatures or animals.

Secondly, perhaps because of my encounters in Catholic institutions, I became interested in the spiritual element involved. So for example if we might say animals are "persons," can we say they, then, religiously speaking, that they have "souls" or some form of soul? In what sense is there an immaterial organization and intelligence animating that material form? What exactly is "mind" understood as intelligence, understood as that unifying force within a life form that animates it? Soul? Can we say that that self-moving feature of living forms – call it intelligence for now – is to be found, say, in insects, then, too? What about plants? Generally any living thing? After all, from the emotional part of the soul, the appetitive part, is to be found in bees or wasps that become "angry." Or ants who work to save others in the colony. Or rats who feel empathy and free other rats from cages, and so on. So the "animals and religion" question crept in as well.

Of course animals and theology may seem to be an odd combination. However with Pope Francis' recent comments relating to Pope Paul VI's declaration that "Heaven is open to all creatures," books like Trent Drougherty’s The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy for All Creatures Great and Small, and the anthology Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology (edited by Stephen D. Moore) seem all the more relevant.
Practically when it comes to forms of life, regardless of species, I try to be vigilant. I've recently even started thinking about plants too. Plant communication, plant intelligence, even whether or not plants can "feel," whether some form of "pain" that humans cannot perceive, perhaps only speculatively imagine, seems important to consider. Michael Marder, a philosopher who has done quite abit of work in the field of plants and philosophy, especially drawing phenomenology into the mix, has researched everything from "plant whispering" to the effects of music on plants, to plant communication, to plant intelligence. Marder's book is called Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. I'd also recommend David Skrbina's Panpsychism in the West and David Clarke's Panpsychism and the Religious Attitude when it comes to considering what within nature may possess mind or intelligence or "soul" (anima). These are books which really open your eyes as to what we might mean by soul or intelligence and what forms of life might have that throughout the natural world. I'd recommend a radio program, The Philosopher's Zone, where Marder is interviewed (as was I on animal emotions some time later). I believe there is also a philosopher on there who discusses the little noticed world of insects – that was a fascinating program to listen to.

I think it is very interesting to look not only at "animals," but also plants and insects regarding the ethical implications of human conduct upon nonhuman forms of life, plant and insect life. Just the other day I watched an insect fall into a small puddle of water that had accumulated on the table before me on our back deck. It had somehow fallen onto its back and was struggling to turn over. It was about a quarter of an inch large, so not very large, but from its perspective it may as well have fallen into a lake and was drowning. Its wings had been glued to the surface tension of the water and it was caught on its back unable to escape. At that moment I knew that that form of life, from its perspective was struggle to stay alive. It wanted to escape. It's desire was just as real as mine. Same thing. It was suffering against a cosmic force, much like we do. I actually think I felt empathy for this living thing, feeling into its feeling of being trapped and trying with all of its might – a life or death consequence – to escape. I slowly took the bookmark that I was using in my book and just ever so gently broke the surface tension of the water under this so small insect's wings, and flipped it over. It drunkenly staggered out of the puddle having been set back on its legs and sat there for a minute, and then began grooming itself – obviously somehow "drying" itself. It then stretched out its wings, widely. It crawled around some and then delicately flew off. That was something, a little form of centered experience, trying to survive as we try to survive. A living creature trying to avoid suffering like we try to avoid suffering. And so, while I had an appreciation for being mindful of not killing insects, I ever more so strongly now am mindful of them if I happen to encounter them.

We often forget the innumerable number of little "perceptual universes" abounding all around of us. But we need to be mindful of them, as each has some value to contribute to the world that is being created by all creatures or life.