Arquivo da tag: Stengers

Review of Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)

Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts
Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, Michael Chase (tr.), Harvard University Press, 2011, 531pp., $49.95 (hbk), ISBN 9780674048034.

Reviewed by Roland Faber, Claremont School of Theology

Isabelle Stengers’ work on Whitehead was a long time in the making — as a work on Whitehead’s work, as an outcome of her thinking with Whitehead through different instantiations of her own writing, and as a process of translation from the French original. It is an important work, unusual not only for the bold generality with which it tries to characterize Whitehead’s philosophical work in its most important manifestations, but even more importantly, for its effort to present a radical alternative mode of contemporary thinking. One is almost tempted to say that the urgency of this book’s intensity is motivated by nothing less than Stengers’ immediate feeling of the importance of Whitehead’s work for the future of (human) civilization. Since we need to make life-and-death decisions regarding the directions we might (want to) take, the explication of Whitehead’s alternatives may be vital. Hence to think with Whitehead is to think alternatives in which we “sign on in advance to an adventure that will leave none of the terms we normally use as they were.” Yet, as a rule, Stengers is “with” Whitehead not only in sorting out such alternatives, but also in his non-confrontational method of peace-making, in which nothing “will be undermined or summarily denounced as a carrier of illusion.” (24)

The two parts of the book roughly bring to light the development of Whitehead’s thought and its shifting points of gravity, circling around two of its major developments.  One of these developments could be said to be temporal, since Whitehead’s philosophical work over time can be characterized as developing from a philosophy of nature (as it was still embedded in the discussion of a philosophy of science) to a metaphysics (that included everything that a philosophy of science has excluded). The other is more spatial, since it circles around the excluded middle between the philosophy of science (excluding mind) and a general metaphysics (of all worlds), namely, a cosmology of our real universe. In an interesting twist, not so common today in any of the standard fields of discourse, we could also agree with Bruno Latour, who in his introduction suggests that both developments, the temporal — how to overcome the bifurcation of nature — and the spatial — how to understand a cosmos of creative organisms — are again (and further) de-centered by the unusual Whiteheadian reintroduction of “God.” (xiii)

The first fourteen chapters that discuss the “temporal” development of Whitehead’s thought (“From the Philosophy of Nature to Metaphysics”) begin with a hermeneutical invitation to the reader to view the Whiteheadian adventure of thought as a dislocation from all commonly held beliefs and theories about nature and the world in general because it asks “questions that will separate them from every consensus.” (7) As its major problem and point of departure, Stengers identifies Whitehead’s criticism of the “bifurcation of nature,” that is, the constitutional division of the universe into mutually exclusive sections (which are often at war with one another because of this division). One section consists of what science finds to be real, but valueless, and the other of that which constitutes mind — a setup that reduces the first section to senseless motion and the second to mere “psychic additions.” (xii) At first exploring Whitehead’s The Concept of Nature, the beginning chapters draw out the contours of Whitehead’s reformulation of the concept of nature, implying that it must not avoid “what the concept of nature designates as ultimate: knowledge.” (41) In Whitehead’s view, knowledge and conceptualization become essential to the concept of nature. While the “goal is not to define a nature that is ‘knowable’ in the philosophers’ sense,” Whitehead defines nature and knowledge “correlatively” such that “‘what’ we perceive does indeed designate nature rather than the perceiving mind.” (44) Conversely, “exactness” is no longer an ideal, but “a thickness with a plurality of experiences occurring simultaneously — like a person walking by.” (55) With Bergson, Whitehead holds that such duration — an event — is the “foothold of the mind” (67) in nature. Being a standpoint, a perspective, paying attention to the aspects of its own integration, such a characterization of an event is meant to generate Whitehead’s argument, as unfolded in Science and the Modern World, against the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (which excludes standpoints by introducing exactness in describing vacuous matter) and, thereby, the bifurcation of nature. (113)

On the way to the cosmology of Process and Reality — itself “a labyrinth-book, a book about which one no longer knows whether it has an author, or whether it is not rather the book that has fashioned its author” (122) — Stengers examines the two unexpected metaphysical chapters of Science and the Modern World — on Abstraction and God — as urged by the aesthetic question within a universe, which defines itself by some kind of harmony and a rationality, that is, by faith in the order of a nature, that does not exclude organisms as exhibiting “living values.” (130) As it resists bifurcation, it enables us to reconcile science and philosophy. This is the moment where, as Stengers shows, Whitehead finds himself in a place where he needs to introduce the concept of God. This move is, however, not motivated by a “preliminary affirmation of His existence,” but by a

fundamental experience of humanity . . . of which no religion can be the privileged expression, although each one develops and collapses, from epoch to epoch, according to whether its doctrines, its rites, its commands, or its definitions do or do not evoke this vision, revive it, or inhibit it, giving it or failing to give it adequate expression (133).

The second part (“Cosmology”) features mainly Process and Reality. Stengers probes the uniqueness and necessity of speculative philosophy and its “intellectual intuition” (234) by exploring its criterion of reciprocal presupposition. (237) This expresses the impossibility of any bifurcation: “the ambition of speculative coherence is to escape the norms to which experiences, isolated by the logical, moral, empiricist, religious, and other stakes that privilege them, are” at “risk of ignoring” the mutuality of “each dancer’s center of gravity” with the “dancer’s spin.” This mutuality of movement requires speculative philosophy, which, in its very production, brings to existence the possibility of a thought ‘without gravity,’ without a privileged direction. The ‘neutral’ metaphysical thought of Science and the Modern World had already risked the adventure of trusting others ‘precursively’ at the moment when one accepts that one’s “own body is put off balance.” (239)

What, in such a world, is ultimately given, then? While in The Concept of Nature the Ultimate was Mind and in Science and the Modern World it was God, in Process and Reality it becomes Creativity. (255) Creativity affirms a universe of accidents, for which God introduces a requirement of the reciprocity of these accidents (265). Creativity is, like Deleuze’s “plane of immanence”, that “which insists and demands to be thought by the philosopher, but of which the philosopher is not in any way the creator.” (268)

Stengers’ distinctive mode of thought tries to avoid common dichotomies and to always highlight Whitehead’s alternative, carved out of the always present aura of complexities that surrounds any activity of becoming, interpretation and reflection. Therefore, she introduces the meaning and function of the Whiteheadian organization of organisms — each event being a “social effort, employing the whole universe” (275) — and the organization of thought (the obligations of speculative philosophy) — correcting the initial surplus of chaotic subjectivity (277). Both these forms of organization lead to “the most risky interpretation” (277) of empiricism as that which makes things hold together, neither crushed nor torn apart. Further investigating how occasions and philosophies function together (by dealing with what has been excluded), Stengers presents us with the fundamental importance of how “feeling” (or the transformation of scars) can offer new ways for (concepts of) life that testify to that which has been eliminated or neglected: how decisions can reduce the cost and victims they require (334) and, in actual and conceptual becoming, transform the status quo. (335) Whiteheadian feeling, of course, precedes consciousness and (even prior to perception) is the unconstrained reception that creates the events of its passing.

In chapters 21 and 22, God again enters the picture, not as rule of generality (metaphysically, aesthetically, or ethically), but as “divine endowment [that] thus corresponds to an individual possibility, not to what individuals should accomplish in the name of interest that transcend them.” (390) Divine intervention responds to “what is best for this impasse” (421), a proposition whose actualization is indeterminate by definition. Here, Whitehead’s metaphysics has rejected the normal/normative in favor of the relevant/valuable. (422) This again is related to the concepts of expression and importance in chapter 23, as “the way living societies can simultaneously canalize and be infected by what lurks [from the future]: originality.” (429)

Most interestingly, Stengers describes this interstitial space as a “sacrament” — the “unique sacrament of expression” — that in its “call for a sacramental plurality” conveys Whitehead’s understanding of “the cosmic meaning he confers upon expression and importance” in order to develop “a sociology of life” (435) for which signs are not only functional, but expressive. It is in this context that “Whitehead’s metaphysical God does not recognize his own, he does not read our hearts, he does not understand us better than we do ourselves, he does not demand our recognition or our gratitude, and we shall never contemplate him in his truth.” Rather, God “celebrates my relation to my self and my belongings, to my body, to my feelings, my intentions, my possibilities and perception.” (448)

If there is, for Stengers, a divine function of salvation regarding Whitehead’s God, it is that which only opens through following Whitehead’s call for a secularization of the notion of the divine. (469, 477) Nothing (not a soul) is lost (in this new secularism), although it is only saved in “the unimaginable divine experience.” (469) This “does not make God the being to whom one may say ‘Thou,’ for he has no other value than the difference he will make in the occasional experience that will derive from him its initial aim.” (477) For Stengers, Whitehead wanted to save God from the role assigned to God by the theological propositions that make God the mere respondent to the religious vision. (479) Instead, God affirms the “full solemnity of the world” (493) for us through a neutral metaphysics in which God stands for all appetite, but impersonally so — saving what is affirmed and excluded alike. (490)

Stengers concludes with one of the most astonishing characteristics of Whitehead’s philosophy: namely, his missing ethics. Instead of viewing this as a lack, she conceives his philosophy as ethos, ethos as habit, and habit as aesthetics, (515) “celebrating the adventure of impermanent syntheses.” This ethos, for Stengers, is not “critical wakefulness,” but “the difference between dream and nightmare” — a dream, a storytelling from within the Platonic cave, together with those who live and argue within in it, but also enjoy together the living values that can be received at the interstices. (516-7) In the end, as in the beginning, the adventure of alternative thinking in Whitehead asks us to walk with him in his vectors of disarming politeness — by asking polite questions that one creature may address to another creature. (518)

If there is a weakness in Stengers’ rendering of Whitehead’s work, it is of a more generic nature, demonstrating its embeddedness in a wider cultural spirit or zeitgeist. Anyone who has some knowledge of the history and development of the reception of, and scholarship on, Whitehead will not fail to discover that Stengers is not the only one who has rediscovered this Whitehead, the Whitehead of the alternative adventure, at least within the last twenty years. Her sporadic recourse to Deleuze functions only as a fleeting spark of light that, if slowed down, would highlight the philosophic background on which current thinkers (including Stengers) have begun to view Whitehead. Although this remains almost undetected between the tectonic shifts of Stengers´ reconfiguration of Whitehead’s thought, one will find Stengers’ work to be the outcome of this same tradition. As with several other of these newer approaches, one of the (unfortunate) fault-lines of Stengers’ endeavor is that, when its sources remain hidden, it contradicts the Whiteheadian spirit of recollection, rediscovery and synthesis in ever new concrescences. Originality (creativity) must not suppress the traditions on which it stands; in particular, a hundred years of Whiteheadian scholarship in process theology that is left in silence. It is sad that a rediscovery of Whitehead should narrow the creative synthesis down by being dominated by such a negative prehension. Granted that from afar one might not see the inner diversity and rich potential of process theology’s rhizomatic development, but to think that to name “God” (anew) in (Whitehead’s) philosophy today is original when it in fact rehearses positions process theology has developed over the last century still leaves me with a question: Is freedom from the past necessarily coupled with its oblivion?

In any case, Stengers’ Thinking with Whitehead is an important contribution to the current landscape of the rediscovery of Whitehead in philosophy and adjunct disciplines. It is also a gift for addressing urgent questions of survival and the “good and better life,” the envisioning of which Whitehead sees as a function of philosophy. May Stengers’ rendering of such an alternative congregation of thought for a new future of civilization steer us toward a more peaceful, polite, and less viciously violent vision.

Stengers: Ciencia y Valores (Networks & Matter)



Ando dándole vueltas a cómo Stengers pudiera ayudarnos a pensar las “colaboraciones experimentales“. Por ello, me he embarcado en una traducción apócrifa de algunos pasajes de Stengers, I. (2013). Science et valeurs : comment ralentir?. In Une autre science est possible ! Manifeste pour un ralentissement des sciences suivi de Le poulpe du doctorat (pp. 51-82). Paris: La Découverte/Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond.

Están divididos por bloques… Cualquier sugerencia de mejora con la traducción será más que bienvenida.

Carácter exigente del experimento / expansión a otros dominios más allá de las ciencias experimentales / diferencia entre logro en ciencias experimentales y sociales

“[…] Subrayar el carácter extremadamente exigente de lo que supone el éxito de un experimento [réussite expérimentale] no es confirmar el privilegio del que ya se benefician las ciencias experimentales, ‘duras’ por definición, sino liberar el espacio para otros tipos de éxito que prolonguen el éxito de un experimento, pero reinventándolo, asociándolo a otro tipo de condiciones. Esas otras condiciones no debieran ser ‘blandas’, sino tan exigentes como las experimentales –aunque exigiendo otra cosa-” (pp.65-66)

“[…] Una perspectiva que llamaremos ‘pragmática’ pudiera, por tanto, sustituir a la noción de ‘visión científica’ del mundo, de un mundo concebido bajo el modelo de lo que exige el éxito de un experimento: en el fondo indiferente, en efecto complicado, pero no proponiendo más que un sólo tipo de éxito, a saber, el descubrimiento del ‘buen punto de vista’ que permite hacerse ‘buenas preguntas’ a partir de las cuales el follón de las observaciones empíricas pueda devenir inteligible […] Una aproximación pragmática prestará, sin embargo, la mayor de las atenciones a esta diferencia que supone que las condiciones del éxito de un experimento puedan ser puestas en duda [mettre en cause].” (p. 66)

“[…] Pragma significa ‘asunto’ [affaire], y el asunto de los científicos es siempre el de la puesta en relación, en de la creación de una relación con otros seres, que busca obtener una respuesta a una pregunta de esos otros seres. Pero hay muchos tipos de puestas en relación de ese género –relaciones por ejemplo bajo la insignia de la seducción, de la tortura, de la investigación estadísticas…–. Si, como propongo, llamamos ‘ciencias modernas’ a las prácticas colectivas que reunen a ‘colegas competentes’ en torno a ponerse en relación con éxito con quien es interrogado, esa relación debiera ser tal que permitiera a los colegas aprender acerca de lo que estudian. En otros términos, esa relación, para tener un valor ‘científico’ que prolongue los valores del éxito de un experimento, debería solicitar que quien es interrogado tenga la capacidad de poner en riesgo [mettre en risque] la pregunta que se le ha lanzado” (pp. 66-67)

“[…] Es únicamente a través de protagonistas ‘recalcitrantes’, que exigen que aquello que les importa sea reconocido y tomado en consideración en la manera de dirigirse a ellos, como se puede crear una relación susceptible de reivindicar un valor científico” (p.67)

“Pero mientras que la puesta en riesgo [mise en risque] en las ciencias experimentales exige la indiferencia de quien es interrogado por la pregunta, las ciencias sociales exigirían sin embargo su no-indiferencia –no desde luego su derecho a dictar a los científicos cómo quieren ser descritos, sino su capacidad de evaluar la pertinencia de la puesta en relación propuesta. Así, está claro que lo que el ‘sociólogo latouriano’ relatará a sus colegas será diferente de lo que relate un experimentador en al menos tres puntos. Para empezar, no podrá tratarse de hechos de los que pretenda tener el poder de imponer su propia interpretación, siendo los colegas sus verificadores […] Asimismo, los colegas no serán convocados a reunirse en una dinámica colectiva en la que cada puesta en relación lograda abra o cierre nuevas posibilidades de puesta en relación. Y estarán, por último, tan poco unidos que la publicación de quien lo ha logrado no les tendrá como únicos destinatarios. De hecho, un logro de este tipo es susceptible de interesar a mucha gente y, si falla, de transformar la manera en que los sociólogos serán acogidos y puestos a prueba por otros grupos” (p.68)

Del “saber sobre” al “saber entre” / Descolonización del pensamiento como ocasión de aprendizaje y no sólo de culpa-heroismo

“La ‘ralentización’ de las ciencias no es una respuesta a los contrastes que debemos introducir entre ciencias, sino que es la condición sine qua non para una respuesta, esto es, también para las prácticas de evaluación que reúnen a los colegas en torno a un modo liberado del modelo acumulativo que trata el mundo considerándolo como dado. Nuestros mundos requieren de otro tipo de imaginación que el ‘pero entonces eso debiera…’ o el ‘y por tanto eso podría…’. Y la pluralidad de estas demandas podría bien responder a una pluralidad de dinámicas de aprendizaje colectivo, poniendo en juego lo que significa, para cada ciencia, una puesta en relación arriesgada”. (pp. 69-70)

“Tomaría como caso prometedor la manera en que ciertos etnólogos han aprendido a desplegar lo que tal puesta en relación supondría, en tanto se han arriesgado a cortar amarras con el anclaje que aseguraba la diferencia estable entre el etnólogo y aquellos a los que interroga. Lo que han relatado es menos un saber ‘sobre’ que un saber ‘entre’, un saber indisociable de la transformación misma del investigador cuyas cuestiones han sido puestas a prueba por otras maneras de dotar de importancia a las cosas, los seres y las relaciones. Y es en la medida en que esa transformación les concierne a todos, con sus riesgos y peligros que los colegas son ‘competentes’, es decir, interesados en primer lugar por lo que uno de ellos ha aprendido, los límites con los que ha tropezado, la manera en que ha podido negociar o reconocer el sentido, pero también la manera en que ha sido forzado a posicionarse, a aceptar que su manera de pensar, de escuchar y de anticipar le sitúa. Es eso que Eduardo Viveiros de Castro denomina un proceso de ‘descolonización del pensamiento’; pero mi aproximación me lleva a pensar este proceso no con connotación de culpa ni de heroísmo, sino en términos de aprendizaje –el etnólogo puede tener viva la memoria del denso vínculo entre la etnología y la colonización, pero no es esto lo que le hará capaz de aprender de aquellos que acepten acogerle” (p.70)

Permitir que cada uno se exprese en sus términos y evalúe desde sus términos / Las ciencias sociales no serán nunca amigas del estado / Extensión de la democracia

“[…] Imaginemos unas ciencias sociales ‘desamalgamadas’ de las ciencias camerales, afirmando el carácter altamente selectivo de sus logros, la necesidad de que aquellos a los que se dirigen, a propósito de quienes tratan de aprender, estén habilitados para evaluar la manera en que se dirigen a ellos y que eso ocurra, sin embargo, sin ‘capturar’ al investigador, convirtiéndolo en un portavoz. Esta doble condición responde a un agenciamiento simbiótico. Tanto el investigador ‘de visita’ como aquellos que lo acogen deben ser capaces de aceptar no capturar al otro y, gracias a esta condición, serán susceptibles de aprender, pero de un modo diferente, en función de lo que les es relevante. Pero lo que requieren las ciencias sociales es también lo que requiere eso que llamamos democracia, si por ella entendemos una dinámica colectiva que permita a aquellos concernidos por una cuestión hacerse capaces de no aceptar o defender una formulación precocinada” (p.76)

“La gobernanza [la gouvernance] en sí misma, y sus ciencias camerales, no tienen los medios de plantearse la cuestión de qué sería una evaluación pertinente, puesto que la pertinencia no es su propósito. Dejadas a ellas mismas, percibirán toda situación con sus propias categorías: ‘debe poder ser evaluado’. La posibilidad de una respuesta que no sea defensiva (¡nada de evaluación!) exige la negociación de convenciones y estas negociaciones exigen la ‘recalcitrancia’, la capacidad para los grupos concernidos de formular lo que cuenta para ellos, lo que deberá tomar en consideración la evaluación –lo que constituirá una ‘convención’ aceptable.

No nos equivoquemos, la cuestión ‘¿cómo queremos ser evaluados?’ no es una verdadera prueba que exija la dinámica colectiva de habilitación que he asociado con la democracia. Y es ahí, evidentemente, donde las ciencias sociales podrían a la vez aprender y valorizar sus saberes en un entorno donde no serían una autoridad sino un recurso. No ‘contra’ la gobernanza, sino en un modo que active las posibilidades de resistir a la captura cameral. Entre las ciencias sociales y el Estado no debiera haber antagonismo, pero tampoco colaboración únicamente. Sólo un vínculo que tuviera la misma precariedad que la definición misma del ‘Estado democrático’, uniendo dos maneras de hacer importar que serían cada una la pesadilla de la otra. Las ciencias sociales no serán jamás las amigas del Estado, puesto que sus logros están destinados a complicarle la vida. Pero la manera en que el Estado escucha y anticipa, o al contrario sufre o a lo mejor tolera esta complicación es una medida de la efectividad de su relación con eso que llamamos democracia.” (pp. 77-78)

“[…] Las ciencias funcionan por extracción, y si hay procesos de aprendizaje, éstos suelen apoyarse en la extracción de aquello que, situado aquí, es susceptible de ser relatado en otro lado. Es la manera en que se han ligado extracción y modernización donde se plantea el problema, lo que transforma la pregunta ‘¿qué podemos aprender aquí?’ en un principio de juicio que identifica lo que ha sido extraído con lo que importa verdaderamente y el resto con un caparazón de creencias y hábitos parásitos. Disolver este vínculo requiere de una verdadera prohibición: que nadie pueda estar autorizado a definir ‘lo que importa verdaderamente’. Esta prohibición no es moral, sino la condición de una cultura de la simbiosis, de una cultura en que cada protagonista tenga la capacidad de presentarse con lo que le importa y de saber que lo que aprenderá del otro quedará comprendido entre las respuestas a las cuestiones que para él importan. Cuestiones cuyo valor remite, entonces, pertinencia, condición para que la respuesta no sea arrebatada, puesto que es precisamente la pertinencia la que prohíbe el sueño de la extracción de aquello que es ‘verdaderamente importante’ Uno no se adueña de aquello de lo que depende. Si aquello que hace existir al otro con su consistencia propia es lo que le permite su recalcitrancia, y si ésta es la condición del aprendizaje de lo pertinente, el sueño en cuestión no remite a la aventura de las ciencias modernas, sino a los felices tiempos de las colonias, cuando los pueblos eran, junto a todo lo otro, aquello de lo que se debía extraer aquello que nos permitiría ‘progresar’, con la ocurrencia de decir ‘ellos creen / nosotros sabemos’.” (p. 80)

“[…] ralentizar es volver a ser capaces de aprender, de conocer con, de reconocer eso que nos sostiene y permite tener, pensar e imaginar. Y, en ese mismo proceso, de crear con los otros relaciones que no sean de captura; es, por tanto, crear entre nosotros y con los otros el tipo de relación que conviene a los enfermos, que tienen necesidad unos de otros para reaprender los unos con los otros, gracias a los otros, lo que supone una vida digna de ser vivida, saberes dignos de ser cultivados” (p.82)

Stengers on emergence (BioSocieties)

BioSocieties (2014) 9, 99–104. doi:10.1057/biosoc.2013.43

Isabelle Stengers. Cosmopolitics. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 299 pp., US$25, £18.50, ISBN: 9780816656868; 9780816656875

Reviewed by Graham Harman

American University, Cairo, Egypt. E-mail:

Cosmopolitics, the major work of Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers, has been available in English since 2011 in a lucid two-volume translation by Robert Bononno. In the Anglophone world Stengers is already known as a formidable interpreter of Alfred North Whitehead, a thinker she has done so much to disseminate in the French-speaking world (Stengers, 2011). But in the present work we encounter Stengers’ own philosophical voice even more directly. Originally published in the 1990’s in seven slim French volumes, Cosmopolitics should be regarded as one of the most unique works of continental philosophy in the past several decades.

For many years, continental philosophy was attacked for its focus on purely literary and social science texts, far from the stunningly successful labors of the natural sciences. Cosmopolitics is one of several prominent recent works that have begun to reverse this trend. Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway also comes to mind (Barad, 2007), as does Manuel DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy(DeLanda, 2002), along with several books on neuroplasticity by Cathérine Malabou (2008) All of these works have had considerable influence, and they may look in retrospect like a collective turning point. Yet Cosmopolitics differs from the others in at least two respects. First, Stengers gives us a long historical narrative filled with a roster of heroes barely familiar to her philosophy readership: Lagrange, Carnot, Hamilton, Duhem, Poincaré, and de Donder among them. Second, Stengers writes as someone personally invested in this history, since she worked as a close associate of Ilya Prigogine, the celebrated Russian-born Belgian chemist. Despite receiving a Nobel Prize in 1977, Prigogine ended his career as a somewhat marginalized figure, accused of ‘delusions of grandeur’ for reasons described in haunting fashion by Stengers herself.1

What will become of Stengers’ detailed history of dynamics among her philosophically minded readers? Gilles Deleuze launched an unexpected fashion for the Stoics and Duns Scotus, to name just two of his ‘minor’ favorites. Alain Badiou has spurred a generation of young readers to learn set theory and idolize the madman-genius Cantor. Will Stengers’ Cosmopolitics provoke a comparable wave of enthusiasm for the history of dynamics? Or will it remain an intriguing dark horse of a book, left by the wayside as different paths are followed? As Stengers demonstrates in her approach to the history of physics, there is no way to predict which human works will become events that produce a tangible line of heirs. Just as Prigogine’s scientific breakthrough in 1972 could have rewritten the history of physics,2 Stengers’ lengthy treatise could lead to a new style of continental philosophy: steeped in Deleuze and Whitehead, while closely tracking the shift from Lagrangians to Hamiltonians to Niels Bohr’s model of the atom. While this may sound unlikely in view of the meager past relations between science and continental philosophy, who would have expected Cantor to become a favorite of young French philosophers? It is at least conceivable that Stengers has opened a door that other talented thinkers will enter, and this gives Cosmopolitics the refreshing air of a possible future, no matter what eventually becomes of the book.

What must now be asked is whether the elegance and historical thoroughness of Cosmopolitics go hand-in-hand with a compelling philosophical position. In her remarkably calm and even-tempered book, Stengers nonetheless shows considerable impatience with philosophers of the old style, who brandish their arrogant certainties about how the world really is. She argues instead for what she calls an “ecology of practices.” Yet this ecological program turns out to be an ontology in its own right, as open to counter-argument as any other. To zero in on Stengers’ ontology, I will focus on her concept of emergence. This is both a central philosophical theme of Cosmpolitics and a topic where she differentiates her views equally from the ‘reductionists’ and the ‘holists,’ who are presented as sharing the same basic flaw. Though it may seem difficult to extract isolated themes from such a densely interwoven work, the brief format of the present review requires that we make the attempt. Ignoring for now her critique of the notion of physical ‘states,’ and her important passing salute to Gilbert Simondon’s dismissal of fully formed individuals, we can find the core of Stengers’ concept of emergence in Chapters 13 and 14 of Cosmopolitics II. These chapters are entitled ‘The Question of Emergence’ and “The Practices of Emergence,”3 and together total just under thirty pages.

Before considering Stengers’ own views, we should place the question of emergence in philosophical context. How does something new emerge irreversibly from the old? This was a central concern of Henri Bergson a century ago, and Francophone thought since the 1960’s has often been nearly obsessed with the question of the new.4 Beyond this theme of the new arising from the old, emergence can also be framed as the question of how the large emerges from the small or the more composite from the more simple. If this never happens, if mid-sized entities are always mere aggregates of tinier authentic things, then we are left with a reductionist or even eliminativist approach to the world in which a privileged ultimate layer is treated as the sole authentic reality. Thinking would thereby become a permanent exercise isundermining: debunking illusory macroscopic beings in favor of underlying subcomponents or perhaps even a barely articulate, gelatinous mass (See Harman, 2011). Particle physics would become the chosen discipline of the gods; all others would have to accept a subordinate local status, ruled by the ultimate primacy of physics.5

Yet we must also beware of a kind of reduction that moves upwards rather than downwards – namely, the kind that I have called overmining. Instead of dissolving a thing into its constituents, we might dissolve it upward into appearances, effects, manifestations, or events, while mocking the ‘naïve realism’ that posits discrete individuals hiding behind their tangible manifestations. Or we might play the double game of doing both at once, duomining the world by appealing sometimes to ultimate particles or indeterminate flux as the bedrock of reality, and other times to an uppermost layer of the visible, the evental, or the determinate that float without a bedrock.6 What is lost through this two-faced process is the middle kingdom: the robust reality of specific things that are more than the inner relations of their parts, but less than their outer relations with their environment. Object-oriented philosophy insists on the rights of the middle kingdom, with objects protected from reduction in two directions rather than just one. From an object-oriented standpoint, how does Stengers look when it comes to the question of emergence? Is she an underminer, an overminer, a duominer, or an ally? Or does she somehow escape all of these categories, which through her act of escape would be exposed as artificial or at least non-exhaustive? Whatever the answer, this will not be an exercise in name-calling or empty labelling. Each of the terms just mentioned (undermining, overmining, duomining, object-oriented) has a precise meaning and definite philosophical consequences.

Stengers is aware that the problem of emergence has ancient metaphysical roots: “Aristotle’s disciples were already arguing about composite bodies endowed with new qualities that arose from the elements that composed them. How could these new qualitative properties be explained?” (p. 208) The standard reductive approach is exemplified by today’s most zealous materialists, who “signal a future in which, from psychology to the social sciences and therapeutic practices, all forms of knowledge concerning human behavior will be understood in terms of neuronal interactions.” (p. 209) Such materialists, of course, do not even treat neurons as the fundamental basis of the world, since they too can be explained through the workings of even tinier constituents. Neurons for them are simply a convenient, provisional, local supply base for reductive explanations of the human realm. Undermining is treated as the very business of thought, the sole legitimate method for assaulting all that is supposedly mysterious.

All resistance to such undermining must hold that something new emerges at levels higher than the physically ultimate. This approach need not come from outside the sciences. Stengers notes that the anti-mechanistic chemists of the eighteenth century “claimed there was a difference between composition, which was their problem, and the simple aggregation of physicists” (p. 209). The quarrel between reduction and anti-reduction thus became a disciplinary dispute between physicists and chemists. Here the chemists are joined by Leibniz, one of Aristotle’s greatest heirs, who “pointed out the foolishness of those who dreamed of explaining sensation, perception, and consciousness in terms of inert matter,” and in doing so “he seems to have been taking part in a quarrel that continues today with the unfortunately celebrated mind-body problem.” (p. 208) Of course, there are several different intellectual camps that might view the celebration of the mind-body problem as ‘unfortunate.’ One of these camps is that of the hardcore materialists mentioned in the previous paragraph. For them there is no mind-body problem simply because body is destined to win; mind will eventually cave in to advancing physical explanations of the brain. For a hardcore idealist such as Berkeley, by contrast, there can be no mind-body problem because mind has already won; to be is to be perceived, and there is no autonomous ‘body’ outside the configurations it displays for some human or divine mind. Against these two options, seekers in the realm of the mind-body problem at least mark a place of uncertainty, a temporary bastion against quick reductions in either direction. Given that Stengers views this bastion as ‘unfortunate’ (as I do, but for very different reasons) we will need to see how she hopes to outflank all three positions simultaneously.

A point of especial interest in Stengers’ story is the changing status of clocks, one of the most useful and earliest-perfected machines of the modern era. “The clock is a weapon against Aristotelian thought, for which matter is unintelligible as such but requires a form, with which are associated both the existence of individual beings, each of which is endowed with its own end, and the possibility of knowing them.” (p. 210) However, “in the case of the clock, matter and finality can be understood separately: consisting of inert parts, and as such subject to the laws of mechanics, it owes its clocklike existence to the genius of the maker, who has subjected those parts to their own ends, who has incorporated them into a coherent mechanism defined by a finality – telling time.” (p. 210) The question of emergence is thereby conflated with the question of purpose or final causation: “The question of finality designates the stronghold that must be defended or conquered.” (p. 210) This appeal to finality proves to be a bad move for the anti-mechanists, since Darwinian natural selection allows Richard Dawkins to replace the purposeful timekeeper with the “blind watchmaker” whose living creatures have no internal finality, but simply survive or fail to survive in the environment they happen to confront. (p. 210) By the same token, it allows Jacques Monod to dismiss final causes and say that living creatures are merely “teleonomic,” meaning that we can describe them on the basis of their aim of self-reproduction, but without metaphysical commitment to an actual finality inherent in these beings themselves. (p. 210)

And here we encounter Stengers’ impatience with both the reductionist and vitalist sides of the dispute. Locked in mutual polemic, each adopts self-defeating strategies that open up vulnerable paths to their mortal enemy. “What I want to emphasize here is that understanding the challenge to which the living being exposes the biologist is barred to the vitalist biologist just as it is to the believer in neo-Darwinism. In both cases, the polemical position is expressed by the production of an identity that is substituted for practical requirements and obligations the way a solution is substituted for a problem.” (p. 211) In other words, the neo-Darwinist defends inert mechanical matter and the vitalist defends non-mechanistic purposes, but these are both ‘identities’ that ought to give way to ‘practical requirements and obligations.’ This is the pragmatist gist of Stengers’ call for an “ecology of practices”: disputes over the nature of reality are pointless polemics that ought to be re-inscribed in the practical soil that enables the two opposite positions in the first place. We are led not to an ambiguous real world in which everything is both mechanistic and purposive, but to an ultimate human practical context in which things are neither mechanistic nor purposive, apart from the ‘requirements and obligations’ following from how the problem is posed at any given time.

Stengers cites the cases of Pasteur demonstrating the autonomy of the microorganism, Körner displaying the hexagonal structure of benzene, and Nirenberg using an artificial DNA molecule to synthesize a protein. (p. 213) Stengers’ ontological conclusions about these events might be called ‘deflationary,’ since they neither add real autonomous microorganisms, benzene molecules, and proteins to the world, nor do they shatter these things reductively into tinier components. As she puts it, “events of this kind mark the creation of new laboratory beings and the new laboratories that correspond to them. But they do not pose the problem of emergence and do not allow any reduction to occur. They mark the success of an operation of delegation.” (p. 213) The understated tone of the passage cannot mask its radical philosophical claim. For it is not just that Pasteur, Körner, and Nirnberg happened not to brush against the philosophical question of reduction and emergence. Instead, for Stengers, reduction and emergence are not legitimate philosophical problems at all. They are pseudo-problems that ought to be replaced by the true problem of how successful and unsuccessful ‘delegations’ are made. Instead of disputing over the criteria for what would or would not count as an ‘emergent’ being immune to mechanistic reduction, “it is much more interesting to point out how the operations of experimental delegation that have treated bacteria as targets or actors have been possible.” (p. 213) Is Stengers’ theory of delegation simply ‘much more interesting’ than ontological disputes over emergence, or are there more convincing grounds for dissolving those disputes into her own pragmatic theory? I for one do not share her lack of ‘interest’ in emergence, nor can I accept the concluding lesson of her Section 13: “all the confrontations that serve as ecology in the modern sciences converge around the question of emergence. Therefore, it is from this field of battle that we must escape… a practical, constructivist sense must be given to the issues covered by [the term ‘emergence’].” (p. 218; emphasis added)

We can now move to Stengers’ attempted coup de grâce in Section 14. “It is not often,” she reports, “that I have the opportunity to speak well of the work of philosophers of science.” (p. 219) Yet she now sees opportunity for praise when referring to the three-tiered model of emergence proclaimed by J.K. Feibleman. Though he starts with “a conventional definition of emergence, which associates the relation between a whole and its parts to the relation between ends and means,” (p. 219) he seems to add an extra layer to the problem. In Feibleman’s own words: “For an organization at any given level, its mechanism lies at the level below, and its purpose at the level above. This law states that for the analysis of any organization three levels are required: its own, the one below, and the one above.”7 For Stengers, the value of this model lies in its implication that “the purpose of an organization is not found in itself but is always seen from the point of view of something else.” (p. 219) This gives ammunition to her claim that the identities of whole and part must be determined in terms of “the practices that allowed those identities to be defined.” (p. 220) In the case of water, for instance, we can actually speak of two waters: “one of its identities corresponds to the chemist’s purpose in understanding it as a molecule that will interact with other molecules; the other corresponds to the purpose of understanding it as a solvent that is a liquid.” (p. 220; emphasis added) The purposes of the understanding are always what is central, hence my added italics in the passage. But even more surprising is Stengers’ brazen rewriting of “emergence” so that it dwells within the understanding itself. As she puts it, ‘ “water” had to emerge twice: as a molecule composed of ‘parts’ and as a liquid with specific properties, composed of molecules.’ (p. 220) The scare-quotes around ‘water’ and ‘parts’ in this passage should not distract us from what is happening to the non-scare-quoted “emergence.” For Stengers, the term “emergence” no longer pertains to levels of reality where something new happens independently of our understanding; instead, it is produced by that very understanding.

It certainly looks as though Stengers is simply replacing the part/whole dualism of classical disputes over emergence with a new and unimproved twofold in which a non-articulate or semi-articulate world is confronted by human scientists whose practical purposes serve to cut the world into neatly defined sections for the first time.8 Here, Stengers might answer that she does not advocate a two-leveled theory of emergence, but something more like Feibleman’s three-leveled model. Let’s consider how such a model might operate in the framework ofComsopolitics.

Stengers briefly develops her own three-level approach with the example of chemical elements. “Ever since Mendeleev,” she recounts, “the element has been a part of the chemical definition of molecules and reactions, but it presents no problem for emergence.” (p. 220) From there, Stengers goes on to describe an asymmetry between elements/molecules on the one hand and atoms on the other; I will treat ‘elements/molecules’ as a pair only because Stengers does not distinguish between them in this passage. As concerns elements/ molecules: “The chemical element, like matter in the Aristotelian sense, has no properties that could be used to define it ‘in itself.’ Its definition entails the definitions of simple and compound bodies and their reactions.” (p. 220) We will discuss this again shortly. But the case of the atom is apparently quite different: “On the other hand, the atom claims to explain the molecule the way the part explains the whole. It owes its scientific existence to practices of a very different kind, which do not address it as a chemical actor; therefore it can, unlike the element, claim a separable identity.” (p. 220) Along with elements/molecules and atoms, we also find the anticipated third level: “element and atom came to designate the same being only after a series of complicated negotiations in which data from various practices had been articulated and coadapted. And in this process of negotiation, the ‘purpose’ is found ‘above,’ on the level of the practice of negotiation itself.” (p. 220)

Though Stengers does not do all the work for us of mapping her threefold schema onto Feibleman’s triad, it is not difficult to see how she proposes to do so. Stengers’ Feiblemanian analysis runs as follows:

  1. We must consider the element/molecule on its own level. According to Stengers, this level is reminiscent of Aristotelian matter, having no properties in its own right but serving as a kind of amorphous receptacle that gains its qualities only from the levels below and above it. We should note in passing that this first level is both dubious and surprisingly innovative. It is dubious because it is by no means clear that the properties of a chemical element can be reduced either to the properties of its atoms or the uses one makes of the element. Indeed, this is one of the chief recurrent arguments of partisans of real emergence. Yet Stengers simply declares their argument irrelevant by her fiat of comparing chemical elements to ‘Aristotelian matter’ lacking intrinsic properties of their own. Yet in another sense her model is also quite innovative, since normally the defenders of matter-without-qualities place it at the very bottom of the cosmos, rather than at an intermediate level as Stengers does.
  2. Following Feibleman’s threefold method (which Stengers endorses), we must now consider the element/molecule at the level below it. In the present example, atoms are the level just below molecules. “Unlike the element,” Stengers already told us, atoms ‘[can] claim a separable identity.’ Obviously Stengers does not take this to be a permanent special feature of atoms, which (as the scientist Stengers knows even better than the chemical layman) can be analyzed downward into quarks and electrons just as easily as molecules can be analyzed into atoms. What she evidently means is that, given our momentary interest in the element/molecule as a chemical agent, and given the sub-chemical status of atoms, we can treat atoms for the moment as explanatory agents or ‘black boxes’ lacking internal articulations of their own. Certainly, we could always change our question and focus on the composition of atoms instead. But the ‘practices’ relevant to our current question allows us to treat the atom (for now) as an explainer that does not need to be explained in turn.
  3. Finally, we must consider the element/molecule at the level above it. For Stengers (there is no evidence that Feibleman would see it this way) this third level is the most important, since it is not just one among equals, but governs the very production of the difference between the other two. For as we saw, “element and atom came to designate the same being only after a series of complicated negotiations in which data from various practices had been articulated and coadapted. And in this process of negotiation, the ‘purpose’ is found ‘above,’ on the level of the practice of negotiation itself.” (p. 220) There may be three layers, but practice is the layer that rules them all.

In short, Stengers does not argue for a three-leveled theory at all, but for precisely the sort of twofold theory of which we were complaining a few pages ago. First, given that Stengers shows no traces of frank Berkeleyan idealism, she seems to concede that there is a world out there that resists our conceptions and allows for some negotiations to succeed and others to fail. That’s the first level: a world that is not just an image in our minds. And second, there is the dominant layer of praxis and negotiation that allows for the very articulation between parts and wholes in the first place. And what of the additional level that Feibleman requires – the consideration of the element/molecule (or anything else) ‘on its own level’? We recall Stengers’ rather noncommittal description of this level: “The chemical element, like matter in the Aristotelian sense, has no properties that could be used to define it ‘in itself.’ Its definition entails the definitions of simple and compound bodies and their reactions.” (p. 220) The upshot is that nothing has any qualities in its own right (here we are speaking of elements/molecules, but the same would hold for atoms, horses, balloons, persons, nations – for anything at all). A thing gains its properties either from the explanations provided by its own parts, or the ‘purposes’ that articulate it in one way rather than another.

In a word, from the standpoint of object-oriented philosophy, Stengers is a classic duominer who reduces entities simultaneously both to lower-level atoms and higher-level scientific purposes, while reserving for entities themselves nothing but the amorphous status of inarticulate Arisotelian matter, fit only to be shaped by our ‘ecology of practices.’ Reality becomes a hot potato, passed either downward to tiny pieces or upward to all-encompassing practices, but is never stationed wherever we happen to be searching for it. This is the philosophical pitfall of duomining, and I hope that the unfamiliarity of the term does not overshadow the seriousness with which I use it. For all her claims to surpass all the stale old dualistic polemics, Stengers simply shows us the most classic reflex of Western philosophy: a simultaneous reduction of the world in two separate directions rather than one, with each reduction providing an alibi for the other.


1 For Stengers’ treatment of Prigogine see Cosmopolitics II, Chapter V, Life and Artifice, pp. 105–204. For a more detailed earlier collaboration between the two, (see Prigogine and Stengers, 1984).

2 Stengers makes this claim about Prigogine in Cosmopolitics II, p. 151.

3 Stengers, Cosmopolitics II, pp. 207–233.

4 For an intriguing account of this phenomenon, see the treatment of Badiou and structuralism in Bryant (2011), p. 243 ff.

5 I have criticized this tendency in the work of James Ladyman and Ross, among others. See Harman (2010).

6 I borrow the term ‘duomining’ from the credit card industry, where it refers to the simultaneous use of data and text mining. See Harman (2013).

7 Stengers is quoting here from page 61 of Feibleman (1954).

8 The ‘human scientists’ part is slightly unfair, of course, since Stengers like Latour tries to reinterpret words such as ‘negotiate’ in non-anthropocentric terms (see her remarks on the body’s twofold treatment of water in Cosmopolitics II, p. 221). But the same ontological problems occur even if we allow non-humans to join humans in using their own purposes to carve a largely inarticulate world into pieces. See my remarks about how a global ‘relationism’ is only marginally better than a human-centered ‘correlationism’ in Harman (2009).


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  3. DeLanda, M. (2002) Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London: Continuum.
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  6. Harman, G. (2010) I am also of the opinion that materialism must be destroyed. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28(5): 772–790. | Article |
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  8. Harman, G. (2013) Undermining, overmining, and duomining: A critique. In: J. Sutela (ed.) ADD Metaphysics. Aalto Finland: Aalto University Design Research Laboratory, pp. 40–51.
  9. Malabou, C. (2008) What Should We Do With Our Brain? Trans. S. Rand. New York: Fordham Univ. Press.
  10. Prigogine, I. and Stengers, I. (1984) Order Out of Chaos. New York: Bantam.
  11. Stengers, I. (2011) Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts. Trans. M. Chase. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

About the Author

Graham Harman is Distinguished University Professor at the American University in Cairo. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism (2013).