On Aesthetics and Mentality in Speculative Philosophy Today

By A. J. NocekJuly 6, 2015

The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism by Steven Shaviro

FOR OVER HALF A CENTURY, the work of Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) was little more than a footnote to the history of philosophy. Until recently, he is most likely to have been remembered, if at all, for his collaboration with Bertrand Russell in the Principia Mathematica (1910, 1912, 1913), a foundational text for the development of analytical philosophy. Subsequently, Whitehead turned his attention to metaphysics at a time when the emerging disciplines of analytical and Continental thought rejected this style of philosophy as the dogmatic relic of a pre-Kantian past. Though Whitehead enjoyed prestigious posts at the University College London and Harvard University in later years, and published major treatises on metaphysics in the 1920s and 1930s, his influence quickly faded. With analytical philosophers under the spell of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and Continentals enamored with Husserlian and Heideggerian phenomenology, Whitehead’s brazen adoption of an outmoded philosophical method fated his work to gather dust on bookshelves for the rest of the 20th century.

If the charge of anachronism wasn’t enough, the concepts Whitehead developed in his later work remain some of the most challenging in the history of philosophy. In her companion to Whitehead’s Process and Reality, Elizabeth M. Kraus notes that, “Process and Reality undoubtedly ranks as one of the most difficult works in philosophical literature, second only to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Hegel’s Logic.” Indeed, not only does Whitehead develop a metaphysical system that derails nearly every common-sense assumption we have about the world, including the vocabulary we use to talk about it, but it also presupposes an in-depth familiarity with certain branches of mathematics, such as point-free geometry. If Whitehead’s later work was read in the 20th century, it was not by philosophers, but by process theologians who discovered in Whitehead a notion of God that requires the world just as much as the reverse is true. Thus, unless you were working in this little-known field of theology, dredging through the pages of Whitehead’s daunting work would have hardly seemed worth the effort.

And yet, that’s just what countless scholars are doing today. What’s perhaps most surprising about this resurgence of interest in Whitehead’s later work is that it’s not only coming from philosophers, but also from sociologists, geographers, scientists, film and media scholars, literary theorists, architects and designers, feminists, and others. Indeed, within the last 10 years, there has been such an unbelievable surge of interest in Whitehead’s work that it is difficult to keep abreast of the latest developments. What seems clear, however, is that scholars are finding relevancy for Whitehead’s thought today that it clearly did not posses in its own time. As Isabelle Stengers succinctly puts it, “the speculative operation attempted by Whitehead could well be more relevant today than it was in his day […].”

Steven Shaviro’s latest book on Whitehead, The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, is a part of the outgrowth of interest in Whitehead’s thought for addressing the problems of contemporary life. This is not Shaviro’s first book on Whitehead, however. In 2009 he published Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics, a book that deftly negotiates the deep aesthetic and ontological connections running through the work of Whitehead, Kant, and Deleuze. In many ways Without Criteria expressed concerns that had been brewing for years in some Continental circles over the language- and subject-centered climate of Continental thought since Heidegger. In particular, it performed the necessary service of connecting the already well-established discourse on Deleuze’s philosophy of immanence to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism (neither of which privilege language or the human subject), and grounded this connection in their mutual indebtedness to Kantian philosophy.

In many ways, The Universe of Things is a companion piece to Without Criteria, inasmuch as it too uses Whitehead’s later work to intervene on the crippling habits of thought that grip Western philosophy. But this time, Shaviro’s target is not limited to the influence of Heidegger on post-World War II thought, but it extends much further back, and takes aim at what took shape in the wake of Kant’s “Copernican Revolution.” According to Shaviro, although Kant’s transcendental idealism forged a resolution between rationalists on the one hand and empiricists on the other, what resulted from this compromise is a world that is never knowable in-itself, and is only assessable through the straightjacket of the categories the human mind uses to understand it. In the wake of Kantian thought, we cannot have access to “things in themselves”; we can only ever know how the world appears to us. Thus, what emerged from Kant’s descent into the mind in the 18th century was an intellectual climate in which the world apart from human access has been unthinkable ever since, and those who claim to think it — e.g., scientists and metaphysicians — are “naïve realists.” Some version of this Kantian idea (its variations are many) pervades philosophy throughout the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries on both sides of the Atlantic — from phenomenology and post-structuralism in European thought to philosophy of mind and epistemology in the Anglo-American tradition.

And it is overcoming this post-Kantian predicament that preoccupies the recent development in Continental philosophy known as speculative realism, and animates Shaviro’s revival of Whitehead in The Universe of Things. In particular, Shaviro argues that Whitehead anticipates the speculative-realist (and to a lesser extent, new-materialist) critique of the Kantian spell cast on Western philosophy, or what Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism”: namely, “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” Shaviro explains, however, that it is best to refer to speculative realism in the plural — i.e., “speculative realisms” — since the philosophical programs of speculative realists are widely divergent, and more often than not they contradict one another (more on this below). What nevertheless unifies them is their shared commitment to rejecting correlationism and to promoting “metaphysical speculation and […] a robust ontological realism.”

Throughout the book, Shaviro argues that Whitehead shares many speculative-realist commitments, even if he does not share their vocabulary. Where the latter seek to undermine the privilege of human access to the world, and make room for what Meillassoux calls “the great outdoors,” so, too, Whitehead is one of “those rare philosophers who […] dares to venture beyond the human sphere” through his critique of the “bifurcation of nature,” by eradicating the essential differences between phenomenal and material worlds. Though Whitehead “never aimed to offer a critique of correlationism,” Shaviro sees deep connections between the concerns that animate Whitehead’s speculative metaphysics and those that yoke together the many variations on speculative realism today.

But much more than this, what stands out about The Universe of Things is how it navigates the thorny, if sometimes churlish, terrain of the anti-correlationist debate by showing how Whitehead offers a fresh perspective that can resolve many of the contradictions and missteps that riddle speculative thought in the 21st century. Indeed, Shaviro transforms this Victorian-era mathematician, who often displayed Quaker sensibilities, into a hardnosed philosopher who can spar with and refute some of the most stubborn, and at times draconian, thinking that Continental philosophy has ever seen. If there is a weakness to the book, it’s that it gives far too much credit to the style of agonistic debate that has taken place on the blogosphere for close to a decade now, and it uses Whitehead as its battle armor (more on this later).

But I certainly don’t think this overshadows what The Universe of Things is able to achieve. Over the course of seven chapters, Shaviro demonstrates how Whitehead marries aesthetics and panpsychism (the doctrine that mentality is immanent to the material world) in such a way that their surprising conjunction in Whitehead’s thought emerges as the most viable alternative within contemporary speculative thought today. At it its best moments, Shaviro’s book may even serve to rescue speculative philosophy from the nihilistic abyss into which contemporary thinkers such as Ray Brassier, Eugene Thacker, and Meillassoux willingly plunge. As I go on to discuss, Shaviro does not shy away from seriously entertaining, for example, Brassier’s conclusion that the universe is “fundamentally inimical to thought,” or Meillassoux’s proposal that it is only through mathematics and logic that thought is able to “erase itself.” In fact, he spends the majority of Chapter 6, “Noncorrelational Thought,” rehearsing the philosophical problems that animate their bleak solutions. But in the end, Shaviro (via Whitehead) demonstrates that stripping the universe of mentality, value, and beauty is an unnecessary step, inasmuch as it ultimately fails to achieve what it sets out to: ridding philosophy of correlationism.

Each of the seven chapters in The Universe of Things aims to advance Whitehead’s “panpsychic aesthetics” in the climate of speculative philosophy from a different, if sometimes idiosyncratic, perspective. The first three chapters, for example, were each previously published and so can be evaluated on their own merits. But taken together, they represent some of the most rewarding pages of the book, mainly because Shaviro defends the primacy of aesthetics in Whitehead’s metaphysics by using Whitehead’s own aesthetic method. Take the first chapter, “Self-Enjoyment and Concern”: there, Shaviro sets himself the task of illustrating how any occasion of experience — which is not unique to humans, but is immanent to the material world, traversing organic and inorganic systems alike — is at once an immediate, self-contained satisfaction and a concern for past and future experiences. Instead of insisting upon the opposition between self-enjoyment and concern, Whitehead contends that there is a deeper complementarity between the two, which creates a “patterned contrast”: “concern is itself a kind of self-enjoyment,” Shaviro remarks, “and it arises out of the very process of immediate self-enjoyment, for it is precisely when ‘engaged in its own immediate self-realization’ that an occasion finds itself most vitally ‘concerned with the universe’ that lies beyond it.”

What interests Shaviro in particular is the fact that Whitehead makes a habit out of perceiving patterned contrasts where ordinary cognition only delivers opposition or negation — this is also evidenced in the relation between God and the World, subjectivity and objectivity, immanence and transcendence, etc.; it is precisely these contrasts, which lie below the threshold of cognition, that Whitehead calls aesthetic. Ultimately, Shaviro will read Whitehead’s aesthetics of contrast through Kant’s notion of the beautiful, since beauty triggers “an overflow of perceptual experience [intuition] that cannot be categorized or contained, much less put into language.” The importance of beauty for Whitehead’s metaphysics cannot be overestimated: “beauty,” Whitehead claims in Adventures of Ideas, “is a wider, and more fundamental, notion than Truth, so much so that “the teleology of the Universe is directed to the production of Beauty.”

What’s intriguing, if exemplary of The Universe of Things’ idiosyncratic style, is that Shaviro then sets himself the task of comparing Whitehead’s aesthetics to Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics. Odd as it may seem to begin a monograph on Whitehead and Speculative Realism by returning to Levinas, who is neither a realist nor a reader of Whitehead, Shaviro rightly points out that Levinas is largely responsible for the “ethical turn” in Continental thought, and thus our contemporary intuition that ethics and politics (or concern) are primary, or are, in any case, more fundamental than aesthetics. Although Whitehead emerges triumphant in Shaviro’s narrative — that is, a subject’s relation (or concern) for the Other (Levinas) is inseparable from its own self-enjoyment (Whitehead) — I actually think that the encounter between Whitehead and Levinas is deeper than this. Shaviro facilitates an aesthetic encounter between the two: Levinas confirms an intuition about the world, namely, that a subject’s relation to the other transcends it, but this transcendence is not opposed to the immanence of the subject’s self-enjoyment. Between Whitehead and Levinas, then, there exists an aesthetic relation.

There is also a way in which Shaviro preforms a similar aesthetic revision of Graham Harman’s work, but in the opposite direction. Taken by itself, Chapter 2, “The Actual Volcano,” rehearses much of the back-and-forth debate between Shaviro and Harman circulating on philosophy blogs for years now (see especially Shaviro’s blog, “The Pinnochio Theory”; Levi Bryant’s blog, “Larval Subjects”; and Harman’s blog, “Object-Oriented Philosophy”) and published in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. But set alongside Chapter 1, this chapter helps establish the book’s own aesthetic rhythm. Where Levinas insists upon the primacy of a subject’s relation to the Other, Harman, by contrast, holds that a subject’s (or an object’s, since a subject is also an object for Harman) privacy or withdrawal from all relation is primary. If Harman and Levinas represent two different — though ultimately complementary — ends of the spectrum, then Shaviro nevertheless has a clear, if unstated, preference for Harman over Levinas: Harman, like Whitehead, extends his analysis of objects and their relations to all objects (human and nonhuman alike), and is for this reason anti-correlationist. But much like Chapter 1, what’s most satisfying about Chapter 2 is not that Whitehead emerges victorious over Harman, and what’s more, that “all the problems that Harman discovers in Whitehead’s thought, and relationist thought more generally, also plague Harman’s substance-based philosophy.” No, what’s worthy of our attention, I believe, is that Shaviro creates an aesthetic contrast between Whitehead and Harman in much the same way that he does with Levinas. In particular, he contends that Harman, much as Levinas does, appeals to an important intuition about the world: that an object is not exhausted by the sum total of its relations. But even though an object has substance in its own right, this does not mean that it is “vacuum sealed,” as Harman claims. Harman’s metaphysics is not wrong, so much as it’s not the complete story; it cannot account, for example, for Levinas’s equally valid sense of the world: the importance of the subject’s relation to the other, to what transcends its own self-enjoyment. An object’s privacy and relation are not opposed or irreconcilable, they just need to be brought into a deeper complementarity. Indeed, bringing these two intuitions about the world together is, I think, what Shaviro is up to in these two chapters, and it’s ultimately Whitehead who can synthesize Levinas and Harman aesthetically.

If Chapters 1 and 2 demonstrate Whitehead’s usefulness for bringing opposed terms (and thinkers) into an aesthetic relation, then Chapter 3 fleshes out what this aesthetic mode of relating means in more concrete terms. Although some of the most pleasurable pages of the chapter concern Shaviro’s reading of Gwyneth Jones’s science fiction short story “The Universe of Things” through the lens of Harman’s analysis of “tool-being” (from his 2002 book Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects), what advances the overall argument are two points that come out of this discussion. First, Shaviro distinguishes between aesthetic and cognitive relations among things. The aesthetic intermingling of opposites, of contraries and of antitheses, which he spends Chapters 1, 2, and the majority of Chapter 3 demonstrating, is not readily cognizable: aesthetics “has to do with things insofar as they cannot be cognized or subordinated to concepts and also insofar as they cannot be utilized, or normatively regulated, or defined according to rules.” In fact, one only arrives at Harman’s central thesis that the world is composed of “vacuum sealed” objects when the world is treated cognitively or practically. Indeed, that there is a deeper, aesthetic interpenetration of things, or what Whitehead calls “causal efficacy,” confirms our intuition that “I always feel more of a thing than I actually know of it, and I feel it otherwise than I know it.” For Whitehead, “things both differentiate themselves absolutely from one another and refer themselves incessantly to one another.” In this way, each entity, from a solar system to a microbe, is caught between “withdrawal” and “belonging,” the conjunction of which is only perceptible aesthetically.

The second, and perhaps more controversial, thesis to emerge out of Shaviro’s discussion of the dual movement of experience is that metaphysics must, in some fundamental sense, also be panpsychic, which is to say, hold that mentality is immanent to matter. Despite the risks of such a claim — i.e., “it can easily get one branded as a crackpot” — and indeed, his own rejection of it in Without Criteria, panpsychism follows naturally, Shaviro now contends, from the non-correlationist assertion that all entities “have feelings and exert agency,” that everything wields unique powers that directly affect others. In other words, Whitehead’s aesthetic thesis also yields a panpsychic one.

Shaviro then marshals the conjunction of aesthetics and panpsychism in Whitehead to intervene in speculative-realist thought and to generate crucial alliances in a variety of philosophical milieus. In what follows, I consider three salient features of Shaviro’s use of Whitehead for these purposes, and then gesture toward some limitations of this approach.

The first thing that stands out is the way in which scientific and mathematical knowledge figure in Whitehead’s panpsychic universe, and how this places him squarely on one side of the anti-correlationist debate. Following Harman, Shaviro notes that “the most important fault line running through speculative realism” (Harman 2012) is the status of mathematical and scientific access to reality. On the one hand, there is Meillassoux and Brassier, who propose that extra-correlational reality “must be an entity without thought.” To overcome correlationism, Being must be absolutely de-correlated from Thought; it must be subtracted of all vestiges of affect, sentience, and vitality. For Meillassoux, it is post-Cantorian mathematics and logic that provide access to extra-correlational reality: mathematical formalism is the only way to strike the observer completely, “leaving behind just those properties that an object has in and of itself.” Brassier, for his part, is more severe in his conclusions, arguing that Being is itself “inherently unthinkable,” and that there is always a “gap” between a concept and its object, even for mathematics and science (pace Meillassoux). Physical sciences, however, are able to measure the difference between “reality and the way it is conceptually circumscribed,” which reveals the “meaninglessness of existence without turning this meaninglessness […] into yet another source for meaning.” Scientific thought, Brassier goes on to claim, is therefore led to its own extinction: or more precisely, “thought’s recognition of its own extinction.” Despite the many differences between Meillassoux and Brassier — and there are others that Shaviro deftly negotiates (see Chapter 6) — suffice it to say that on this side of the anti-correlational divide, reality is “inert and lifeless.”

For Harman, Grant, and Shaviro/Whitehead, on the other hand, science and mathematics do not have the same kind of privilege as they do in Meillassoux and Brassier, and this is principally because an entity cannot be exhausted through mathematical intuition (Meillassoux), or indirectly understood by measuring thought’s inadequacy to it (Brassier). Equally for Whitehead and Harman, an entity is irreducible to what can be cognitively known about it (recall for Whitehead that every entity is dipolar). But perhaps what most decisively sets this group of speculative realists apart from Meillassoux and Brassier is that mentality (in some form) is extended to the entire universe. To my mind, it’s here that Shaviro delivers one of his most damaging blows to the other realist camp: “it is only an anthropocentric prejudice to assume that things cannot be lively and active and mindful on their own, without us.” Meillassoux and Brassier are each guilty, in their own ways, of “human exceptionalism,” despite their vigilant efforts to eradicate every last vestige of it through science and mathematics.

The alternative, according to Shaviro, is Whitehead’s value-filled universe, where thought and mentality are utterly “common” and “ordinary” in the material world. There is nothing exceptional about thought, affect, and feeling. While Shaviro spends a good deal of space defending his panpsychic thesis against charges of “anti-intellectualism,” by connecting it to usual suspects, such as William James and, to a lesser extent, George Molnar, he also sees hidden pockets of panpsychism lurking in analytical philosophy.

This brings me to the second crucial feature of Shaviro’s use of panpsychism in the context of contemporary philosophy: namely, its connection to nonhuman minds and values in the analytical tradition. He finds resources especially in Thomas Nagel’s famous essay “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?,” as well as in the Wittgenstein’s later work on inner sensations, and in Galen Strawson’s explicit endorsement of panpsychism, despite his “unquestioned scientific reductionism.” What’s significant about this encounter with analytic philosophy is neither that it validates panpsychism (as it comes across at times in Shaviro’s own work), nor that it does any important clarificatory work. After all, what stands out for these analytics and Whitehead alike is the irreducible persistence of mental experience in the physical world. On the contrary, what’s noteworthy, if not underscored by Shaviro himself, is that drawing on the analytical tradition demonstrates that Whitehead can talk across the greatest divide in Western philosophical thought: between analytic and Continental philosophy. Thus, if Shaviro uses Whitehead to forge unusual connections between Continental thinkers (between Harman and Levinas, for example), then he also finds a way to bring analytics and Continentals together through Whitehead’s panpsychism.

There is yet another alliance that Shaviro creates for Whitehead’s panpsychic aesthetics; it is an alliance, however, that cuts to the heart of speculative realism as such. Shaviro’s third noteworthy intervention, then, is this: he contends that Kant, who remains one of speculative realism’s greatest adversaries, actually anticipated the aesthetics of both Whitehead and Deleuze in the Critique of Judgment. For anyone familiar with Shaviro’s other work, the recourse to Kant should really come as no surprise given that Kant figures so prominently in Without Criteria. What is surprising, and, I must admit, deeply satisfying about Kant’s prominence in the final chapter of The Universe of Things, is that Kant has the last word on the speculative-realist trouncing of his legacy. As Shaviro skillfully demonstrates, the non-cognitive feelings between entities that Whitehead calls aesthetic are already anticipated by Kant in the “Analytic of the Beautiful.” Read through Deleuze, Shaviro forcefully shows how judgments of beauty precede cognition and do not have a concept adequate to them. “Beauty,” Shaviro insists, “involves an immediate excess of sensation: something that stimulates thinking but that cannot be contained in, or expressed by, any particular thought. 

With the help of Deleuze and Whitehead, Shaviro sees in Kant the recipe for an aesthetics that is not the mere privilege of certain human minds, but a fact of the material universe as such; aesthetic experience is immanent to the world, not above it, reflecting on it. So where Kant may have led centuries of Western thought into the interiority of the mind in the first critique, he also provides the resources for getting us out of the mind and into the “great outdoors” (Meillassoux) in the third critique. According to Shaviro, Whitehead radicalizes Kant’s aesthetic intuitions, a move that provides the basis for his own version of speculative realism: “Speculative Aesthetics.” Such a speculative aesthetics has yet to be constructed, but it promises to be “an alternative both to Meillassoux’s vision of radical contingency and Harman’s vision of objects encased in immutable vacuums.”

The Universe of Things is the most important monograph yet to address Whitehead’s relevance for contemporary philosophy. Not only does it negotiate Whitehead’s relation to the many debates in speculative philosophy today, but it also, and most importantly, uses Whitehead to forge useful alternatives to the many contradictions in speculative realism. If there is a weakness to the book, however, it’s that over the course of the argument — roughly, by Chapter 4 — Whitehead’s synthetic or aesthetic method, which proved so refreshing in the first three chapters, is set aside in favor of more oppositional modes of thinking — e.g., panpsychism vs. eliminativism, correlational vs. anti-correlational, and so on. My sense is that this is a symptom of engaging with speculative realism in the first place, since the movement — if it can even be called that — is predicated on an “us and them” view of philosophy. Whatever the reason for this departure, the point is that these are the sections of the book that strike me as the least Whiteheadian: Whitehead may emerge triumphant, but not without sacrificing some of the spirit of his philosophical method.

With that said, Shaviro does not fail to deliver on his promise of demonstrating Whitehead’s relevance in 21st-century philosophical debates. But more than this, he uses Whitehead as a platform for developing a mode of speculative philosophy that exceeds or precedes cognition and is thoroughly aesthetic. In Process and Reality Whitehead explains that for any proposition, there must exist subjects who are willing to entertain it; if those subjects do not yet exist, “the proposition awaits […] its subjects.” In this same vein, I think that one of the greatest services The Universe of Things does is demonstrate how Whitehead’s propositions have found subjects to entertain and transform them. Whitehead may have fallen out of favor in the 21st century, but his thought has gained considerable traction in recent years. And if the success of Shaviro’s recent works on Whitehead are any indication of the future, Whitehead’s importance for 21st-century thought is sure to become even more apparent in years to come.


A. J. Nocek holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Washington.

LARB Contributor

A. J. Nocek holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Washington. Beginning in Fall 2015, Nocek will be an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy of Technology in the School of Arts, Media + Engineering at Arizona State University. His research and teaching lie at the intersections of Continental philosophy and science and technology studies, digital culture and aesthetics, and design and technoscience. Nocek has published numerous essays on media theory, artificial life, architecture, the history of biotechnology, and process philosophy. He is the co-editor of the collection The Lure of Whitehead (Minnesota 2014), and a special issue of the journal Inflexions titled “Animating Biophilosophy” (2014). He is currently working on a manuscript titled The Molecular Avant-Garde: Towards a Cosmopolitics of Scientific Visuality.


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