Why Bother with Metaphysics?

This Thursday (5/3/18) I participated in a panel with my peers Emily Wright and William Dowling. The panel arose out of the course we’re currently in, titled Religious Metaphysics After Modernity, instructed by Professor Jake Sherman, and was part of the PCC roundtable series that Aaron Weiss and Adam Robbert have been organizing—a series I plan to absorb into the PCC Forum once its up and going next fall!

We covered a wide gamut—discussing topics ranging from recent work in neuroscience (e.g. microphenomenology) to storytelling and performative cosmology. I hope those of you reading find our musing and discussion stimulating. I’ve included a transcript of my talk below the video in case anyone is interested in reading it. It’s been challenging, but a joy to participate in speaking events like the last two without much preparation. I plan to continue that, to ease my way into a more spontaneous form of poetic-philosophizing.

“Why Bother with Metaphysics?”

Disclaimer: The “we” I speak with is an invitational one. If you feel as though my remarks don’t apply to you, then they don’t—my intention is not to swallow you up.


So, Why bother with metaphysics?


Before I answer, let me first situate myself: I write to you now from the Robert Heyns Reading Room at University of California, Berkeley. If look up from where I type, I see gilded ceiling—a long expanse of bronze ornament stretches out, deepening my thoughts. Roving-my-head-round, I see a series of nametags emblazoned at the meeting place between wall and roof. The first I compute,



then there’s Kant across the way,


and Goethe… among other Giants of the Western Story.


Why bother with metaphysics?

Things just are the way they are. All the work has been done, just look up! The nametags—as large as I am—say it all! Let’s be gracious to our forebears—their Discoveries—some more than others, have built the foundation of the house through which we window-gaze upon the World.

I for one am not an undutiful Son!

Thank you, dear Forebears.


So why metaphysics? Well, what if things could be otherwise?

True, I do feel a bit drafty. I don’t know that I can ignore the cracks in the floorboard much longer. And yes, the word Discoveries I used earlier was sort of triggering. Decisions sounds a bit more apt. What if things could be otherwise…?

It compels me to admit something…

I’ve lied to you all. I’m not actually writing this from Robert Heyns Reading Room. I’m really in the historic North Reading Room, across the hall. On my way to the bathroom I passed Robert’s Room and was spellbound by its ceiling, more elaborate than in the North. Then I noticed Descartes’ nametag and a lightbulb went off:

A way to begin this talk!
But I didn’t want to sit in Robert’s room, the light wasn’t bright enough.

No need, I thought to myself, they’ll never know the difference!

And then, another lightbulb went off:

Why bother with metaphysics? Well, what if things could be otherwise?

So far I’ve got two stories running. I’m either writing to you from Robert Heyns Reading Room, or I’m writing to you from North Reading Room. Which one is more real? Does it matter? I think it does, and I promise you the latter is the Real one—though you won’t ever know for sure. So just go with it for now!

Two stories so far—stirring two different sets of associations, shaping and reshaping each individual future of you who listen, even—perhaps—for those of you tuning me out—the vibrations of my voice still acting upon your eardrums. Maybe the futural differences are negligible, but who really knows?

The historic North Reading Room, taken from lib.berkley.edu.


What does this have to do with metaphysics, though?

In a very simple way, the differences matter, because the difference could mean a different future, a different story. So far, my storytelling has been concerned with choice and behavior at the level of conscious awareness. Though, no doubt, stories always reach deeper. The deeper we go, the thicker the entrenchment of story. What we know before we know we know—those overarching narratives stubbornly looping on and on.


It is at this level—the deep unconscious, keeper of Cosmologies—that Story derives its force,

The Rootbed of the “Why bother:”


I am possessed by certain assumptions about myself and the World:

I am a subject set against the World as Object. I am a Princess locked forever in a Tower. I am lonely, and my loneliness leads me to question this Story.  I rebel against my forebears, yet eventually I realize that only because of them have I been led to ask such questions:
Thank you, dear forebears.
Perhaps there’s no bridging Kant’s transcendental divide—that gap between my experience and things-in-themselves—perhaps we are bound to Quentin Meillassoux’s correlationism, the life-sentence of only being able to speculate from our unique perspectives. But maybe, following Timothy Morton, we ought to consider how unique to human beings that gap truly is. Have we rushed to copyright something that is and always was part of the commons? Or are we porous, pervious, perforated bags of water like Morton has it? It has been three hundred and eighty-one years since Descartes published his “Discourse on Method.” Though it pre-existed US copyright laws, I imagine the gap has long since entered the Public Domain. So can we ease up on our skepticism about experience and the experience of other beings?


Meanwhile, Our World is heating up, unraveling and revealing the taken for granted connections of our stable Holocene—that quaint period of periodicity, reified into cyclical cosmology and calendar, coming to an end. Incomes the Anthropocene, a concept which signals the time whereof the thumbprint of human activity stamps itself boldly across and deeply into the planet. We have become a geologic force. Yet, paradoxically, “the Anthropocene,” Timothy Morton tells us, is at the same time

one of the first truly anti-anthropocentric concepts because via thinking the Anthropocene, we get to see the concept of “species” as it really is—species as a subscendent hyperobject, brittle and inconsistent…The Anthropocene is the moment at which species become thinkable in a non-metaphysical way, such that humankind cannot rigidly exclude nonhumans. The human becomes smaller than the sum of its (human, bacterial microbiome, prosthetic) parts. Humankind is, as I said before, intrinsically disabled without hope of a “healthy” (explosive) wholeness.[1]

Subscendence is Morton’s favorite form of holism, what he calls implosive holism. In contrast to explosive holism, the perspective which hoists the transcendent Whole over the less than parts, implosive holism has it the other way around—the parts are many and they make up the fragile whole. Both are equally real, but the latter is wholly dependent upon its parts, or partial connections, for existence. Morton is in league with other thinkers like Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour who claim that taking the ecological crisis means challenging metaphysical assumptions, assumptions like explosive holism which undercut the significant role connections play in constituting the whole. James Lovelock’s Gaia theory is often misattributed this kind of scheme, wherein Gaia is thought to be a soul-like self-organizing system maintaining planetary disequilibrium, our benevolent Earth-Mother keeping house. As Latour explains, a closer reading of Lovelock reveals that what Gaia refers to “is only the name proposed for all the intermingled and unpredictable consequences of the agents, each of which is pursuing its own interest by manipulating its own environment.”[2] Morton won’t even touch the term Gaia, and instead refers to the relying-on of the biosphere as the “symbiotic real” “in which entities are related in a non-total ragged way.”[3]  “Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something,” Donna Haraway tells us.[4]  She’ll call this, among other names, Ongoingness, that tangling mess of sympoeisis, or becoming-with, that makes up Earth systems.

Each of these tricksters defies the ontic separation between mind and world because the ecological crisis makes it a political matter. Together they wait on the other side of the gap, taunting us to make the leap. And with their own neologisms, each trickster urges us to consciously practice re-linking with our creaturely fellows—each of us, partial connections, participating in the constitution of the biosphere. For Haraway it is about cultivating response-ability; Morton calls it attunement, and Latour wants us reflexively looping and re-looping forever, treating the Whole we seek as Sisyphus does his boulder. We are to aesthetisize ourselves; to realize a Cosmopoetics of ecological belonging. The story of a transcendent Whole, taken for granted, is stale and outworn. Metaphysical systems tell stories, and vice versa. Because of this, Haraway admonishes us to realize that “it matters which stories tell stories as a practice of caring and thinking.”[5] Given that human life and the capacity to spin stories derives in the first place from ecological being, it’s not a far stretch to say that—though we can tell many—some stories are better told than others. Some hit closer to home.

The problem of transcendence is one of the reasons metaphysics has been rejected. Like my disclaimer at the beginning suggested, employing Wholes like the term “we” has historically swallowed important differences, sacrificed to the totalizing project of what William Desmond calls determinative curiosity.

Determinative curiosity though, is an orphan,

lost and very insecure.


It has forgotten its home and throws tantrums for absolute certainty,

It believes that to be is to be intelligible.


But curiosity is not born in a vacuum—rather, in a totally opposite manner—curiosity first derives from what Desmond calls original astonishment.


Its home is in wonder and to wonder it will always return.
Astonishment – when we are overcome, possessed by Excess. Patience with wonder.

Perplexity – “troubled mindfulness…” What could this indefiniteness mean?[6]

Curiosity – the movement to overcome the trouble through intelligibility and definition.


“Why is it important to distinguish these three?” Desmond asks “Because in the main we have tended to think of the process of mindfulness, whether philosophical or scientific, in terms of the third possibility,” reducing the astonishment and perplexity as merely hurdles in the process of determinative curiosity.[7]


Brought home to itself, curiosity, what we might also call Reason, realizes that not everything may be intelligible. This is important for our metaphysical struggle to think the Whole. Implosive holism may be a helpful critique for providential laziness. We keep living business as usual as if Gaia or Mother Nature will clean up our mess.


But I think there is something about the call of our trickster to re-sensitize ourselves to what we might still call Nature (or Gaia, or the Symbiotic Real, or Ongoingness) that still whispers of a more majestic Whole, a holy kind of Whole.
Morton is not down with transcendence, but his neologism “hyperobject” – an entity massively distributed in time and space like the Symbiotic Real or Global warming – is something we might call transcendent if we rethink how its conventionally understood.


What if we thought transcendence, as Jake puts it, “as the superlative mode of immanence?”

Transcendence understood this way is something we actually experience, what generates our experience of astonishment. Desmond links it with the hyperbolic or overdeterminate nature of Being itself – the sheer excess that catches us up in wonder.


Awe then becomes a way back to a Whole, a route for us to tread as we re-sensitize ourselves to our ecological becoming-with other creatures. Rooted back, curiosity realizes that not everything can be circumscribed by concepts. “The Whole,” Raimon Pannikar tells us, “is not the sum total of substantial selves, is not an object, and thus is impervious to any episteme that aims at objective knowledge. Furthermore, it is not the proper field of any exclusive ontology, that is, of any approach to Being exclusively by means of logos. Our attempt requires also the pneuma, the spirit, love, not as a second fiddle playing to the echoes of reason, but as a loving knowledge…”[8] (17)


The call to aesthetisize ourselves to our involvement with the partial connections that make up our biosphere is a call to re-member the Whole in a more playful way. It is a call back to metaphysics, revived and fleshy.
The language we use to tell the story matters – and some words won’t do. Totalizing concepts of the Whole must give way to more playful, symbolic expressions – images that approach the whole, yet are humbly understood as our best sketches of the inexpressible.


Cosmopoetics can then be understood as the effort to take philosophical language playfully serious, an effort to create aesthetic rituals of thought resonant enough to make doing metaphysics tantamount to passing through a conceptual birth canal.


Why bother with metaphysics?
Because some stories are better told than others. The Princess agrees,
Let me out of this Tower!


[1] Timothy Moton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (London, Verso, 2017), 113.

[2] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climactic Regime (Medford, Polity, 2017), 142.

[3] Morton, Humankind, 1.

[4] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene, (Durham, Duke University, 2017), 31.

[5]  Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 37.

[6] William Desmond, “Being, Determination, and Dialectic: On the Sources of Metaphysical Thinking.” The Review of Metaphysics, 48, no. 4 (1995): 731-69. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20129761.

[7] Desmond, “Being, Determination, and Dialectic: On the Sources of Metaphysical Thinking,”  738.

[8] Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being: The Unbroken Trinity, (Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 2013), 17.

(Header image titled “Song of Songs V” by Marc Chagall)

Feeling Together: a Talk

The following is a recording of a talk I gave during PCC’s retreat to Bishop Ranch last week. Below that you’ll find the transcript!

The ideas I’m sharing today are not my own, but at the same time it’s true that I am here filtering them through the convergent point that is my unique perspective. In particular, I want to acknowledge a discussion that took place last Thursday at CIIS between Sam Mickey, Sean Kelly, Julie Morley, and Matt Segall during PAR’s first panel discussion, for it is especially informing what I share with you now.

One of the things I love most about PCC—and which seems to be true of ESR as well—is the variety of people who are attracted to it. Many ages; miles; languages; talents; and aspirations gather here. And for me, at least, there is a taste of homecoming about our community—something common that brings us together. I think that commonality is a shared intention, a notion I think I recognize in the words “re-imagine the human species as a mutually-enhancing member of the Earth community,” words that appear on PCC’s webpage. Put another way, we here are dedicated to multi-species flourishing on planet Earth, a deeper kinship with the other creatures we enmesh with. What would it take for that dream to become reality? Latent in our dream, I think I see the image of a cosmopolitics—a politics I’ll define in this context as one purged of human exceptionalism and in which nonhumans are extended representation.

You’d think that more people might be concerned by the sirens set off by climate scientists, but as the alt right movement has shown us, so-called neutral facts and figures aren’t always enough to move the human heart. How else might we make our appeal? As Sean Kelly and my cohort have taught me so well this year, we must do many things—anything less at this point would be a missed opportunity. I came to CIIS driven by the conviction that an appeal to feeling was the most potent and pragmatic appeal to make in a culture so anesthetized to the reality of our ecological interdependence. To me, art-making was the primary route to feeling, the key for change to be realized. Shortly after beginning my journey through PCC I was quickly purged of that dogmatism. It was just my means to meet the injunction to have a solution, a capital T truth to rest in. Deep down, I don’t think I ever believed it. But I do still think that feeling is primary (and not apart from thinking).

That specter called Utopia lures me forth—I so badly want a cosmopolitics. My imagination, thick with visions of creaturely diplomats; fungal-human-housing collaborations; a silk road of food forests weaving through boundaryless country.

Close your eyes a moment.

I can almost feel it.

We might try, but not everyone has the time or privilege to humor such things. This semester I’ve been entangled with thinkers, ideas, fellow students and teachers, wandering—feeling blindly through the dark—grasping for metaphors that stick, words we can hold on to in this time of radical change. The work of realizing a cosmopolitics is the reworking of what it means to be human after descending from the pedestal of Modernism. We must ask—what does it feel like? And for that we need an aesthetic—a cosmopoetics.

One of the repercussions of bifurcation—the separation of mind from matter, culture from nature, etc.—is that we (and this “we” is an invitational one) have largely become anaesthetized to the effects our lifestyles have on the fragile Earth system. Of course, not all of the human species fits into this category of alienation. Peoples who live closer and pay better attention to the land have been speaking out for centuries. Bruno Latour thinks that part of the problem is our tendency to think in terms of Wholes (capital W) and parts (lowercase p), where parts are subsumed by a Whole that is thought to be greater than those parts. Thinking with these terms results in a premature unification “of what first needs to be composed.” The Earth as Globe—as Sphere—we assume, has always been this way. Mama Gaia will take care of us if we just shape up. But it was not until the development of technologies sensitive enough to detect things like carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, the salinity of our seas, and the poverty of our soils that we began to piece together the delicate connections that keep our Earth system thriving in a dynamic state of disequilibrium. Though I do not deny the possibility of intuiting the Whole as concrete—say, the embodied soul of Earth as Gaia—I do think that it is the fragile connections delineated by climate science that allow us the most accessible semblance of that whole. Pragmatically speaking, it is about time that the parts take precedence over that mysterious Whole, so that we—privileged enough to recognize what is at stake—can begin to better attune ourselves and others to its fragility rather than taking it for granted. Only when we feel what’s at stake will we be driven to the kind of transformations that are necessary for our urgent times.

But how? How do we feel more into deeply what’s at stake?

To draw a sphere, one must first draw a circle, a loop—like the feedback loops we are sensing through climate science technologies. To quote Latour (and this is a long one), “we have to slip into, envelop ourselves within, a large number of loops, so that, gradually, step by step, knowledge of the place in which we live and the requirements of our atmospheric condition can gain greater pertinence…But we all have to learn this for ourselves, anew each time. And it has nothing to do with being a human-in-Nature or a human-on-the-Globe. It is rather a slow fusion of cognitive, emotional, and aesthetic virtues thanks to which the loops are made more and more visible. After each passage through a loop, we become more sensitive and more reactive to the fragile envelopes we inhabit.”[1]

Latour calls for us to “aesthetisize” ourselves “in the old sense [of the word as a]…capacity to “perceive” and to be “concerned” – in other words, a capacity to make oneself sensitive that precedes all distinctions among the instruments of science, politics, art and religion.”[2]
Donna Haraway calls this becoming “response-able.”

I’m inspired by the perspective of the late performance artist, teacher, political activist, and general shapeshifter, Joseph Beuys who conceived of social sculpture, an art that defies regular boundaries and encompasses everyday life. We might call this aesthetic activism. Each of us, an artist, a partial-maker, in the weaving of our social nexus that is ultimately the whole of cosmic history. The term co-creator might ring a bell. But what the ecological crisis has signaled—if we are so bold to face it—is the extent to which a swollen human hubris has absorbed so much agency that it has deanimated the rest of the world. Anthropogenic climate change pulls the plug as what was once an inert background—the “environment”—springs to life and acts back. As Isabelle Stengers says, “Gaia is touchy!”

The monoliths of our Understanding give out, closing the chasm between Subject and Object. What was once Other is in me and now I can only ask—

“Who am I?” According to Lynn Margulis, mostly bacteria.

It’s important to accept that by understanding, we mean translation, and by concept, we mean metaphor. How we interpret reality is a fiction among fictions. Our time is one where changing the story becomes a matter of life or death. Some stories are better told than others.

The figure of a feedback loop implies repetition; habit; ritual. A process-relational perspective shifts the emphasis from what is, to what is happening. Things are understood according to what they do, how they perform. Human identity becomes on ongoing creative act—what defines us can change. It reminds me of Aristotle’s virtue theory. In that schema (and here I am simplifying it) to become virtuous, one must act virtuous until the loop becomes habit, second-nature.
Like our guiding ideal of cosmopolitics, Latour tells us that once upon a time, “it took many decades to agree that the definition of democracy as the will of a sovereign people corresponds, even vaguely, to a reality, and it was necessary to start with a fiction.”[3] Nation-states were once on par with the prospect of nonhuman political representation we dream of today.  In general, the ritual of political representation is never more than a poetic gesture, but some poets hit closer to home than others. That there is a world we make together, I have no doubt, but consensus in a process-relational cosmos is a constant work in progress.

In May of 2015, Bruno Latour collaborated with students and faculty from the school of political arts at Sciences Po in Paris to create a simulation of the approaching Paris Climate Agreements, but in this scenario the United Nations were accompanied by representatives of nonhuman interests. Together, they called their performance the “Theater of Negotiations.” Unlike the historical fuss made over agreeing to fall under One Nation, Latour observed that the performers had no issue imagining into the role of Forest or Ocean representative, “I very much enjoyed observing that the negotiations were never impeded by that sort of objection.” Latour tells us, “rather,” The tireless president Jennifer Ching addressed “Lands” or “Amazonia” just as politely and straightforwardly as she addressed “Canada” or “Europe.”[4] The “Theater of Negotiations might seem like a silly, fruitless exercise in imagination, but only to those who forsake the imaginative basis for the politic farce we take for granted today. On the contrary, a seminal stunt like this—if looped through enough—could establish itself as a ritual with as much mythic force as the United Nations has.

For an example of response-ablitiy in the sciences—biological fieldwork specifically—Donna Haraway attunes us to the epistemological position of ethologist Thelma Rowell—what the latter calls her “virtue of politeness.” Rather than assume “that beings have pre-established natures and abilities that are simply put into play in an encounter,” “politeness,” Haraway tells us, “does the energetic work of holding open the possibility that surprises are in store, that something interesting is about to happen, but only if one cultivates the virtue of letting those ones who visit intra-actively shape what occurs. They are not who/what we expected to visit, and we are not who/what were anticipated either. Visiting is a subject- and object-making dance, and the choreographer is a trickster.”[5] Haraway goes on to describe an enchanting situation between an ornithologist and a group of Arabian babblers “who defied orthodox accounts of what birds should be doing, even as the scientists also acted off-script scientifically.”[6]

Sym fiction / science fiction / speculative fiction — these, in different ways, refer to a practice of storytelling as a model of conscious art-making, what we might call with Beuys, social sculpture. In our time of collapse, invoking Haraway again, “we need to write stories and live lives for flourishing and abundance.” This kind of fiction would be “committed to strengthening ways to propose near futures, possible futures, and implausible real nows” so that we can begin “cultivating the capacity to re-imagine wealth, learn practical healing rather than wholeness, and stitch together improbable collaborations without worrying overmuch about conventional ontological kinds.”[7] This is what Haraway means by her slogan “Staying with the Trouble.” We have to rebuild from the ruins we find ourselves in.  Future-telling, the telling of futures we dream of, brings those futures closer into view. I’m aware that professor Elizabeth Allison has written something like this. I am also in the midst of a project, writing the journey of a protagonist whose consciousness is as industrial as mine is, but who lives in a future where human norms have become made over by the radical reorientation we are just beginning to face. My intention in writing this is to re-work in the process—as much as I can—my own assumptions, in hopes that—once finished—it might serve the same end for others when they read it.

Though the examples I gave might conveniently be categorized—political, scientific, artistic—each of them honors the originating force of imagination, has a common ground in the crowning of metaphor. Each is an attempt to modify the collective aesthetic, to shape our social sculpture. Closing the gap between Nature and Culture means letting go of capital T, engaging us in an ongoing practice of translation as we feel our ways through worlds. It has always been hard for me to define what makes something a work of art beyond the basic “rightness” I feel in its gesture. But that there is sometimes that feeling of “rightness,” and even more, that sometimes I might find resonance with another about that “rightness” goes to show, as Haraway echoes, “it matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.”[8] Because some stories are better told than others.

[1] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2017), 139-140.

[2] Latour, Facing Gaia, 145.

[3] Latour, Facing Gaia, 263.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Donna Jeanne Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, (Durham, Duke University Press, 2016), 127.

[6] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 128.

[7] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 136.

[8] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 35.


Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Staying with the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Latour, Bruno.Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017.