Why Philosophy Won’t Save Us (2)

Let me try to give an example.

I read a blog by a wonderful young philosopher, Matthew Segall, currently at the California Institute of Integral Studies. His work is passionate, full of wonder, and infinitely patient. Unsurprisingly, his work centers on Whitehead, the philosopher of infinite patience, who envisioned God as infinite patience.

In a recent post, he compared Whitehead and Marx, observing that Marx tended to deanimate the world, imagining it as stripped of agency and requiring human ideas, in contrast to Whitehead, for whom ideas (and values) travel through humans, but preexist, and do not depend on, humans.

Whitehead and Marx: A Cosmopolitical Approach to Ecological Civilization

It’s a wonderful post, offering much to think about, including some brilliantly selected quotes, such as:

Whitehead: “We have no right to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the universe” (Modes of Thought 111).

And some provocative statements, such as:

Whitehead invites us to expand our conception so that we can sense that the idea of the Good generates the light and warmth of the Sun no less than the nuclear reactions and electromagnetic radiation known to physicists, that the idea of Beauty is at work in the evolution of peacocks and butterflies and roses and not just in Beethoven’s 9th or the Mona Lisa. Ideas don’t just shape history, they shape geohistory and indeed cosmic history.

It’s possible that Segall’s work, such as The Re-Emergence of Schelling: Philosophy in a Time of Emergency, written as a doctoral student, sparked recent workshops by the Claremont School of Theology on the question of whether philosophy (specifically, process relational thinking) can save the world. 

Philosophy in a Time of Emergency

Segall’s Philosophy in a Time of Emergency notes the interest of process-relational thinkers such as C.S. Peirce and William James in Schelling, proposing that “Schelling’s philosophy provides many of the anthropological, theological, and cosmological resources necessary for bringing forth an alternative form of modernity no longer bent on the destruction of earth and the disintegration of human communities.”

I agree wholeheartedly that it’s vital to make an alternative modernity thinkable for ourselves. We have to make it as tangible as possible. And, to do that, we do very well to look at outlier thinkers like Schelling, whose naturphilosophie influenced the British Romantics through Coleridge, and who left powerful ripples in the modernity that ignored him.

At the same time, I cannot help but remember a visit I paid, in Varanasi, India, to Dr. P. Krishna, who runs the Krishnamurti study center at the Rajghat Education Center of the Krishnamurti Foundation India. As we sat on the lawn under majestic trees, and looked out on the Ganges River, he commented that one can be a philosophy professor, but that does not transform one’s consciousness. Ultimately what matters is our mode of attention. Our remarkably destructive and fragmented society is the product of a concerted effort, on the part of billions of people, to live inattentively.

More precisely, we have accepted certain limits on attention, and we have not questioned those limits. For this reason, we never (or rarely) come upon an etho-ecological mode of attention/experience. It’s fine to understand intellectually that everything flows, and that the cosmos involves pulsations of emotion, value, or relationship, but an actual shift has to take place, experientially, in attention.

We need to state the urgency of this shift more plainly. We need to state, factually, precisely, that our mode of attention is limited. We have to do more than critique the center; insight into the ways that the center operates (precluding relationship and difference) needs to actually lead us across the water, to the experience of attention without the center. Philosophy (in tandem with psychology and cultural theory) can help us understand why we have accepted (and policed) this limitation — why we have set a bar on etho-ecological attention. But we need to be less squeamish about saying, in good company with William Blake, that “the Eye altering alters all.”

In all my studies, in all my conversations with intellectuals, theorists, scientists, and philosophers, far too little is ever said about this need to alter the eye, or to relax the optic mode of perception into a haptic one. Perhaps this is too simple and obvious for philosophers — and perhaps that’s another reason why philosophy won’t save us.













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