Sunday, August 26, 2007

Whitehead deplores the way that Kant shifts the focus of philosophy from ontological questions to epistemological ones

Interstitial Life: Novelty and Double Causality in Kant, Whitehead, and Deleuze
Steven Shaviro The Pinocchio Theory
Alfred North Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze both place creativity, novelty, innovation, and the New at the center of metaphysical speculation. These concepts (or at least these words) are so familiar to us today – familiar, perhaps, to the point of nausea – that it is difficult to grasp how radical a rupture they mark in the history of Western thought. In fact, the valorization of change and novelty, which we so take for granted today, is itself a novelty of relatively recent origin. Philosophy from Plato to Heidegger is largely oriented towards anamnesis (reminiscence) and aletheia (unforgetting), towards origins and foundations, towards the past rather than the future.
Whitehead breaks with this tradition, when he designates the "production of novelty" as an "ultimate notion," or "ultimate metaphysical principle" (1929/1978, 21). This means that the New is one of those fundamental concepts that "are incapable of analysis in terms of factors more far-reaching than themselves" (1938/1968, 1). Deleuze similarly insists that the New is a value in itself: "the new, with its power of beginning and beginning again, remains forever new." There is "a difference. . . both formal and in kind" between the genuinely new, and that which is customary and established (1994, 136).
Deleuze and Guattari therefore say that "the object of philosophy is to create concepts that are always new" (1994, 5). Philosophical concepts are not for all time; they are not given in advance, and they "are not waiting for us ready-made, like heavenly bodies." Instead, they must always be "invented, fabricated, or rather created" afresh; "philosophers must distrust. . . those concepts they did not create themselves" (5- 6).
For both Whitehead and Deleuze, novelty is the highest criterion for thought; even truth depends upon novelty and creativity, rather than the reverse. As for creativity itself, it appears "that Whitehead actually coined the term – our term, still the preferred currency of exchange among literature, science, and the arts. . .a term that quickly became so popular, so omnipresent, that its invention within living memory, and by Alfred North Whitehead of all people, quickly became occluded" (Meyer 2005, 2-3).
What is the meaning, and what is the import, of our belief in creativity today? How does the New enter into the world? And how does the valuation of the New enter into thought? Deleuze explicitly invokes Nietzsche’s call for a "revaluation of all values," and for the continual "creation of new values" (1994, 136). And Whitehead and Deleuze alike are inspired by Bergson’s insistence that "life. . . is invention, is unceasing creation" (2005, 27). But the real turning-point comes a century before Bergson and Nietzsche, in Kant’s "Copernican revolution" in philosophy. Kant himself does not explicitly value the New, but he makes such a valuation (or revaluation) thinkable for the first time. He does this by shifting the focus of philosophy from questions of essence ("what is it?") to questions of manner ("how is it possible?").1
Kant rejects the quest for an absolute determination of being: this is an unfulfillable, and indeed a meaningless, task. Instead, he seeks to define the necessary conditions – or what today we would call the structural presuppositions – for the existence of whatever is, in all its variety and mutability. That is to say, Kant warns us that we cannot think beyond the conditions, or limits of thought, that he establishes. But he also tells us that, once these conditions are given, the contents of appearance cannot be any further prescribed. The ways in which things appear are limited, but appearances themselves are not.
They cannot be known in advance, but must be encountered in the course of experience. This means that experience is always able to surprise us. Our categories are never definitive or all-inclusive. Kant’s argument against metaphysical dogmatism, which both Whitehead and Deleuze endorse, means that being always remains open. "The whole is neither given nor giveable. . . because it is the Open, and because its nature is to change constantly, or to give rise to something new, in short, to endure" (Deleuze 1986, 9). "Creative advance into novelty" (Whitehead 1929/1978, 222) is always possible, always about to happen.
1 Whitehead disparagingly remarks that, in philosophy since the eighteenth century, "the question, What do we know?, has been transformed into the question, What can we know? This latter question has been dogmatically solved by the presupposition that all knowledge starts from the consciousness of spatio-temporal patterns of such sense percepta" (1938/1968, 74). This is evidently a direct criticism of Kant, and of nearly all post-Kantian philosophy. Whitehead deplores the way that Kant shifts the focus of philosophy from ontological questions to epistemological ones. But his greatest objection is to what he sees as the "dogmatic" way that Kant resolves the question of what we can know, by retaining his predecessors’ restriction of experience to the realm of "presentational immediacy."
I want to suggest, however, that Kant’s epochal shift of focus – from "do" to "can" – should also be read as a widening and enabling move. Since it does not pre-empt the empirical, but meets it half-way, it opens a place for potentiality, and thereby for a Bergsonian open future, one that is not already predetermined by the past. To ask "how is it possible?" is to focus on manner instead of on essence. Kant implicitly does what Leibniz before him and Whitehead after him do explicitly: he invents a mannerism in philosophy, a way of thinking "that is opposed to the essentialism first of Aristotle and then of Descartes" (Deleuze 1993, 53). Both Whitehead and Deleuze may be seen as reviving Leibniz’s mannerist project, in a world where Kantian critique has disallowed what Whitehead calls the "audacious fudge" of Leibniz’s theodicy (1929/1978, 47).
Another Chapter from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro I have finally finished another chapter of the Whitehead book — the one I had been hoping to finish in July. Here it is. (Once again, consumer warning: unrevised state, probably contains errors and lamenesses that will have to be attended to eventually). For a bunch of the other chapters, plus additional published or unpublished work, go here.

No comments:

Post a Comment