4/28 – Transfiguring the Everyday: Socio-Cultural Ontologies and Philosophical Transgression

Feature Articles / April-June 2016

Michael Schwartz

Michael Schwartz transfiguring

Michael Schwartz



Disenchantment, Philosophy, Meta-Philosophy

Disenchantment is a recurring, if at times underground, concern in contemporary continental and comparative philosophy. To get some quick bearings, let us recall Weber’s famous characterization of modern instrumental reason and its rationalizing processes as dissolving and displacing pre-modern senses of an inherently meaningful and magical world. Similarly, in a more directly philosophical register, Heidegger’s history of being culminates in the reign of Gestell, a mode of sending which veils the meaning, truth, and even question of being; Heidegger seeking creative repetitions and amplifications of pre-modern modes of disclosure as counter-measure, leading to formulations like that of the fourfold. Or, as more directly impacted by Weber, while mediated by Lukacs’ notion of reification, three generations of Frankfurt School thinkers, from Horkeimer to Honneth, share a common normative critique of instrumental rationalization as denaturing depth of meaning and moral orientation; which, unlike Heidegger, is oriented towards isolating socio-culture causes, such as capitalism itself, that are generative of the disenchanting malaise. And still more recently, Roy Bhaskar, the late and great founder of the philosophical and meta-disciplinary movement critical realism, shared some of these latter critical-theoretic concerns — that capitalism was distorting social existence, with the added point that philosophy itself is not immune to such social pathologies, which can animate some of its pronouncements, calling for meta-philosophical insight as important and essential for the health of philosophy itself.

My inquiry is to what extent contemporary continental and comparative philosophy might be unwittingly internalizing some of the limits inherent in wider socio-cultural views of ontology on the one hand, and on the hand might be in reactivity rather than criticality to aspects of the culture at-large – resulting in a squandering of resources for re-enchantment.

First, I wonder if the lack of regular and robust philosophical inquiry into the natural sciences in the continental tradition is not a symptom of an avoidance, a distaste for, what is intuited as one of the sources and consequences of disenchantment – the natural laws and probability waves discovered by the natural sciences that enable endless technological upgrades and empower instrumental projects – countered then by philosophy through focus on questions of human existence, meaning, value, language, social power; without relating such inquiry explicitly and philosophically to the nature of nature as disclosed by the natural sciences (even if that nature of nature is not exhaustive of nature’s nature, a point to which we shall return). Yes, to be sure, in a variety of ways the late Husserl, Bachelard, Deleuze, and others, have written about scientific nature or draw upon its insights for their own philosophizing. Yet the predominant concerns of this tradition are otherwise.

Second, there is an important contemporary philosophical strain that is seeking to expand upon the senses of nature beyond its constriction to what technology and science posit — the latter’s one-sided sense of nature as measurable from a third- person stance, knowledge of its causal mechanisms allowing for instrumental purchase. This reigning view of nature is countenanced and supplanted by romantic and comparative senses of nature as elemental, aesthetical, numinous, and vital. The point is that these more romantic philosophical engagements with nature, as crucial as they are, often bracket or bypass equally philosophically robust engagement with the nature of nature unearthed by science; where what is called for is integrative philosophizing about the nature of nature that includes both the scientific discovery of generative mechanisms and powers as well as transcendental or quasi-transcendental insights about matters like the natural elementals.

Third, is philosophy’s turn to art and aesthetics as well as to the valuation of poetic modes of discourse. In early modernity, the value-spheres or sub-systems of the fine arts differentiated from other value-spheres /sub-systems, generating “autonomous art” and its institutions, which operated as counter-modern spaces of possibility, addressing and redressing imbalances in socio-cultural formations due to the hyper-stress on instrumental reason, its instutionalizations, and the resulting leveling of meaning and value. It is no surprise then that philosophers would often look to art as resource, as with projects of “aesthetic redemption”: Heidegger on art as the saving power (with its complex thesis involving modes of bringing forth); or Foucault’s late work on an aesthetics of existence as a way out from the normalization dictates of disciplinary society with its forms of governmentality and biopower. Poetic discourse in cases even comes to fold back into the act of doing philosophy itself. All of which are brilliant and important in the impulse towards re-enchantment – while at times betraying an allergy to the scientific and technic.

Fourth, and related, is what Charles Taylor has called the ethic of authenticity, descending as it does from the romantic period, a celebration and exploring of the singularity and uniqueness of individual self-unfolding; an important principle and cultural impetus that has decayed however, via modernity’s pathologies, into regressive narcissisms of self-invention (often as not much more than commodified forms of self-styling) with authenticity uncoupled from other-responsibility and social engagement (proper to Taylor’s notion of moral sources). One might wonder to what degree might the uniqueness of someone’s philosophizing — in its maturing into a philosophical practice of self (in Foucault’s robust sense of such activity) — become itself caught up in such pathological forms of self-authoring?

Fifth, within continental and especially comparative philosophy, there may be discerned a tendency towards the horizontal-cultural sublime; that in touching other cultural horizons and historical traditions, there will be an infusion of meaning and depth into the over-rationalized horizons of the West; while the dimensions of the other horizon still hold themselves out as non-integrated and exotic, hence possessing an unassimilated surplus of meaning, a suspended promise of future enrichment. To be sure, this is not the primary motivation for the project, which lies in a profound sense of responsibility towards the otherness of others on a planetary scale. Yet especially in the Western, and surely in the American case, stress on Asian traditions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Tantricism, Taoism, and the like, seek a re-vitalization through the encounter – which, in many cases, is the outcome; the cautionary note that the movement towards encountering cultural otherness can run amok in an endless consuming of cultural otherness that may not, in the end, lead to a depth of enrichment, but a tourism of novel flavors.

Sixth is the theme of meta-narratives. In the wake of Lyotard’s 1979 book on postmodernism and its reception, there have arisen strictures against engaging in meta-narratives. Yet, just what Lyotard meant by that phrase itself is interesting – whether denouncing inherited and reigning meta-narratives or rejecting big picture stories of all kinds (some commentators noting that his story has a certain “meta” status to it). One might inquire to what degree the refusal to engage in such meta-narration might be a pre-critical internalizing of unhealthy societal fracturing and fragmenting, leaving the door open for less than sanguine big picture accounts to take the media stage: as with regressive pre-modern religious tales of the coming-to-your-theatre soon of the rapture, with its denial of the geological age of the planet; or physicist theories of everything that reduce real emergence in the universe to the ever smaller, more primitive, and meaninglessness.

Today then may we ask: to what extent is our philosophical work wisely and effectively transgressive of reigning cultural horizons? Getting clearer on this issue can aid in the process of enchantment, which is already philosophically underway, and even alter a sense of what enchantment/disenchantment might mean.

Expanded Ontologies and Enchantment

Let us now consider the transfiguring of the everyday itself. What I want to recommend is addressing the post/modern malaise does well to include at least two moments: first, a critical one, that is concrete rather than abstract, more critical theoretic than Heideggerian (while holding to the import of Heidegger), discerning socio-cultural causes of disenchantment. And second, that we open to an expanded ontology where there are domains of being that include within them already deep senses of the enchanted.

It is the latter moment that I want to explore on this occasion, as keyed by themes already in continental and comparative philosophy. Themes such as the numinous, the elemental, Gelassenheit, non-duality, tantra. Such themes move to recover an expanded domain and sense of being beyond those of body, mind, language, society, culture, in the usual senses of those terms. Integral theory, as seeded by Ken Wilber in the mid-1990s, offers a smart and robust generalizing map of what such domain might be. (I bracket here the lively and intelligent debates in those circles around the philosophical and meta-theoretic limits of the founding formulations, in order to streamline the present discussion.) First of all, integral theory is perhaps less in a lineage of the New Age that began in the later 19th century and more within a lineage of the Human Potential Movement associated with Esalen Institute, emerging in the 1960s — hence in line with Sloterdijk’s thesis of the contemporary call to grow and evolve per modern anthropotechnics. Integral draws on the world religious lineages as well as modern capacity projects, like developmental and analytic psychology, to ascertain, in the very broadest of strokes, the interwoven arenas of potential growth, healing, and expansion. Part of this generalizing map is that there are basic states of expansive consciousness that open into domains of being otherwise than that of the so-called gross dimension proper to the body-mind, such as subtle state-realms of elemental energies and archetypal patterns; causal domains of void-emptiness coupled with profound aliveness out of which subtle and causal manifestation springs; where the gross, subtle, and causal are all objects of a witnessing or observing consciousness, and where in the collapsing of witnessed and witness all is revealed as always already non-dual. (I add here as an aside that each of these domains show forth perspectival inflections of 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons, to give a flavor for the multi-dimensionality of this generalizing map).

It is not that such themes are foreign to continental and comparative philosophy, as I have already suggested. Yet philosophy today has too rarely taken up with directness, confidence, fullness and vigor fleshed out versions of such ontological regions. Where, to this very point, integral theory insists that transformative practice is by and large required to access directly and in increasing stability-intensity these expanded states, integral having echoes then of what Foucault characterized as the pre-modern ethos in practices of self: that acceding to the truth requires a prior ascetic work on oneself. It is not that this or that philosophy is not about the elementals, this or that that philosophy is not about non-duality — but that practices that one can take up to test out the actuality-claims are rarely supplied or pointed to on the one hand, and on the other, as is often in comparative work, assessments of binding validity are muffled or absent. What might be some of the factors involved?

First, the specter of mysticism lingers: an uncontrolled irrationalism, nowadays associated with the so-called New Age as replete with magical thinking (but where the New Age itself is a complex lineage, of better and worse, which has its roots in 19th century). Second, there is, in comparative work especially, a brilliant and sincere honoring of the respective traditions under study, a high moral value indeed; with the language of such studies often of a third-person kind, philosophy engaging views and claims in the various traditions, while at times suspending assessment of the comparative validity of those claims, so to maintain the moral honoring of the other; with the consequence of often leaving issues of concrete orienting-truth in a state of suspension (indirectly contributingto disenchantment). Third, is the unfolding of professional philosophy in the modern and postmodern periods, where the licit arena of training became circumscribed to cognition, as proper to educational institutions, non-cognitive practices at times seen as dangerous for students, and surely as non-essential for the philosophical enterprise. Fourth, is that subject-object ontologies that have held reign in the modern epoch, as Heidegger would have it, along with the rise of the importance of language, continue, despite innovate ontologies and perhaps then behind our backs, to delimit what philosophy is willing to say about being. We may be, in odd ways, still more “Cartesian” in our unconscious presuppositions than we might at first admit.

Rather, if we are going to argue that subtle and causal states (which have their own distinctive phenomenologies) are an accessing of ontological domains, then an issue arises: how to move out of something like a more or less strong correlationist poise and in the direction of a suggestive realism, which entails in my view at least two considerations: that interpretation/understanding needs to be coupled with exploration of explanation of causes and conditions, and that merological considerations are taken into account to prevent reductionisms and inflationisms, bad versions of what Graham Harman calls undermining and overmining, as in reducing all too-quickly so-called “spiritual phenomena” to brain states alone.

Bhaskar’s work is instructive. His first book was A Realist Theory of Science published in 1975, which for many readers is to rank with the philosophical writings on science by Popper, Kuhns, and Bachelard. Bhaskar forwards a transcendental realistic account of the natural sciences and of nature. Taking up a Lockean metaphor, he sees philosophy as an underlaborer for existing domains of knowledge and practice, clarifying those domains; offering critical and revisionary remarks. General principles and philosophical insights grow in part out of this underlaboring. With regard to the natural sciences, Bhaskar takes up and revises Strawson’s version of transcendental argumentation and asks: “What must the world be like for natural scientific experiment (and for its results and effects) to be possible?” He ends up inferring that there must be three depth strata of the real: empiricities, events, and generative mechanisms. The empirical is bound to human knowing – “I see the sun rising.” Events are less so, having a semi-independence from knowing (and what that entails is perhaps underdefined in this early phase of thought). Generative mechanisms or structures are independent of human knowing – gravity works whether humans exist or not. What is important in this account is the claim that events and the array of interlocked structures that are their causes are out of phase. Most philosophies of science, Bhaskar claims, fail to make this last distinction, attempting to explore causal laws with regard to seeking regularities of conjunctive events, where events and empiricites together are termed the actual. Instead, Bhaskar argues that natural scientific experimentation produces artificial closed systems that enable the isolation of a given generative mechanism for a certain event-set. There is no one to one relation between events and generative mechanisms in the open system of nature, such that generative mechanisms are non-identical to the events to which they give rise, the efficacity of a given structure countervened or dampened in its force by other structures in a given moment. The seeking of regularities of conjoined events in the open system of nature is thus a faulty account of what science does. Instead science isolates with patience generative mechanism after generative mechanism, building up through the results of research horizontal linkages and vertical hierarchies amongst such causal factors, without reducing one level to another; where higher orders, say molecules rather than sub-atomic particles, cannot be explained, without remainder, by reference to the mechanisms at the lower level, entailing the view of real emergence in nature (a point that comes to the fore in the later dialectical writings). To give an example, the current vogue of theoretical physics as a theory of everything is reductive, reducing causation to the lowest levels of nature, whereas emergent levels have their own respective generative mechanism that are also emergent. By and large, Bhaskar avoids what Harman calls undermining and overmining – as there is, for Bhaskar, real emergence in the universe (as fleshed out further in his later dialectical work and its critique of ontological monovalence).

In his subsequent work in the philosophy of the social sciences, Bhaskar argues for the same ontological scheme of three depth strata of the real, with the caveat that socio-cultural systems cannot be experimentally artificially shaped into a closed system, such that ascertaining causative mechanisms is more tricky than with regard for nature. (It is not then that the natural sciences are what get at the “really real” and that the social sciences do not, it is that the task of the latter is more demanding). Finally, in the late phase of his work on non-duality — the philosophy of metaReality – the transcendental and conditioning status of the metaReal for all domains of the Real (natural, social, and whatever else) becomes less easy to articulate and argued for philosophically, although on certain counts he is successful. In moving from nature to the socio-cultural to the non-dual his realism get trickier to defend, which is not to say the latter two phases in Bhaskar’s philosophical corpus fail in this respect.

Echoing Bhaskar, if we are going to offer an account that states of being of the subtle, causal, witnessing, and non-dual are more than states but access domains of some sort that are distinct from the gross, we need to move past our familiar considering of empiricities and actualities alone, and demonstrate that the subtle and causal are causative in some sense, and that their mechanisms are irreducible to those of gross nature as explored by science: that in the strata of causative structures, nests and levels of causality inclusive of gross and extra-gross domains are in play. What is at stake is ascertaining the causative mechanisms of such state-realms as the subtle and causal, demonstrated by repeatable methods that are able to activate these powers and have impact on actualities, including gross domain actualities. Part of the problem is that while for the most part human beings have access to gross domain actuals, like a seeing of stars, the percentage of humans who have stable and creative access to subtle let alone causal actualities is extremely small, where such access is the condition of possibility of exploring if there are causative mechanisms proper to that domain. What is required instead are repeatable methods, inclusive of long-term trainings, for (1) the individual and group accessing of subtle domains, (2) the individual and group exercising of transformation in that subtle domain (inclusive of having impact on gross well-being and health), and then (3) the discerning to what extent or not gross mechanisms can definitively and exhaustively account for (1) and (2) –bracketing from the start any projection of ontological assumptions of what must or must not be the case, looking out for any signs of undermining or overmining, giving full reign to the fullness of being.

But why might any of this matter? First, because the reigning reductions of expanded states to brain waves as the only or primary generative mechanism strata end up contributing to the senses of disenchantment, in part explaining enchantment away. And second, because state realms of the subtle and causal, and the subtle especially, contain within them the power of a deeper enchantment – not a false enchantment of magic or magical thinking and its projection, but an overflow of elemental richness, aliveness, and fecundity of sense and meaning (that begins perhaps to free significance from too narrow of an association with language). With the coming forth of subtle and causal states, issues of vulgar nihilism and disenchantment cease to make much sense, as there is a fecundity and overabundance of meaning and moral depth that saturates self, other, us, all of us, and beyond. Action is readily re-oriented and re-animated, into a kind of wisdom praxis, discussion of which would entail a whole other presentation.

Philosophical underlaboring for a suggestive realism of subtle and causal states as accessing ontological realms with their own causative strata helps clear the space for a more intensive and radical re-enchantment of contemporary planetary life. It is a role that philosophy can and should play. And a role enhanced by a meta-philosophical clearing of tainted philosophical pronouncements.

***Presented at the 11th Annual Meeting of The Comparative & Continental Philosophy Circle, National Taiwan University, Taipei, March 24-26, 2016

About the Author

Michael Schwartz, PhD Columbia University, is Professor at Georgia Regents University, Augusta GA, where he teaches a sequence of transdisciplinary-based academic classes to students in studio art. He is co-founding executive officer of the Comparative and Continental Philosophy Circle, an international professional organization with both a peer-reviewed journal and book series of which he is Associate Editor. Michael has published in the areas of continental philosophy, comparative spirituality, art history, art criticism, art education, critical social theory, integral theory, critical realism, comparative metatheory – including co-editing and co-authoring the first professional academic volume on integral as philosophy (forthcoming). He is curator of the international art exhibition In the Spirit of Wholeness: Integral Art and its Enchantment Aesthetic.

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