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Free and Wild With Whitehead

February 13, 2015

This is a “slightly secret school” as Deleuze wrote in Le Pli, and here the secret is not associated with a desire for mystery, quite the contrary: Whiteheadian philosophers are passionately attached to technical controversy, to explaining conceptual difficulties, and to evaluating possible or necessary modifications. The secret derives from the legacy of a philosopher who, discreetly and without polemics, without ever asking his readers to thrill to the audacity and radicalism of the risk or to the threat of isolation, but with an obstinate tenderness, undertook to forge a conceptual language that forces those who acquire a taste for it to think.

–from Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, by Isabelle Stengers

Alfred North Whitehead was, by all accounts, a very nice man. An Englishman and a gentleman. A professor. A logician, mathematician, metaphysician, educational reformer and speculative theologian, who lived to be quite old without ever giving any offense to anybody, so gentle and so woolly were his words, so gaseous some would say, so soporific, some say. A great grey ghost whose books, when you find them, will be sure to be covered in dust and smell of someone’s grandmother’s house, or of a church basement, most likely Unitarian, most likely in Wisconsin or Vermont.

All of which makes him perfect for rediscovery. Whitehead is so uncool he must be cool. Such unpromising terrain as his is surely where the greatest of treasures will be found. Stengers has written our guidebook. She will show us how to find the thrills in the fog. To discover the adventure of Whitehead — a man who did, after all, write a book called Adventures of Ideas. The audacity of Whitehead. The Whitehead as wild and wonderful as West Virginia. I have only read the introduction of this book, and I am not sure how many of the remaining five hundred pages I will actually manage to get through, but I am excited about trying. I want to hang out with that “slightly secret school” for a time, maybe even join it. I want to learn how to use the word prehension — central to Whitehead — in a sentence. I want to watch as the sun burns off the obscuring mist, revealing the landscape beneath, in all of its perfect gleaming articulation and living movement.

The philosophy of Whitehead may offer a return to metaphysics, in a new key, to those who have abandoned it. We may be right in rejecting abstruse systematic thought when it is a prison of the imagination and an artificial narrowing of experiential truth but perhaps, if we approach it in a different way, the way of Whitehead, we can instead find an expansive liberation in it, a suggestion of new possibilities for the mind. Metaphysics not as an attempt at authoritative knowledge but as truly an adventure of ideas. What fun it is to discover that within the apparently tedious and obscure abstractions of the old professor there lies a beating heart, a vital energy, and an open frontier. That’s the kind of fun I’d like to have with Whitehead, with Stengers as my guide.

I first learned of Isabelle Stengers from reading Bruno Latour — who is a great admirer of her, as she is of him — and of this book from his review, which you can read here. If you are anything like me, you will intrigued enough by the review to put Thinking With Whitehead on your Amazon Christmas list, and a generous family member will buy it for you, and then you will read the introduction and post on your blog about it, and the cycle will continue.

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