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.
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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.