…Man is neither the oldest nor the most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge. Taking a relatively short chronological sample within a restricted geographical area—European culture since the sixteenth century—one can be certain that man is a recent invention within it. If these arrangements were to disappear as they appeared…then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.
— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 1966
We are immersed in a time of meteoric change from the microbial, to the planetary, to the extraterrestrial. Biotechnologists snip and rearrange DNA, editing what we call “life.” Computers we call artificially “intelligent” are learning to respond to human emotions. Cosmologists’ observations unveil that only a fraction of the observable universe is what we call “matter.” Computer-brain interfaces that amplify human sensoria are altering what we call “the body.” And collaborations with animals suggest that what we call “the mind” extends far beyond our human brains.
Life, intelligence, matter, body, mind: such concepts are undergoing momentous revisions. New and emerging technologies are transmuting these concepts, in turn prompting us to reconsider the philosophical and institutional scaffoldings that have historically narrated the human as apart from—and master over—nature.
In this moment of categorial instability, not only will we at the Berggruen Institute witness great transformations of life, but indeed will have a hand in reforming life’s plenitudinous definitions in their fledgling forms. To do so will require philosophical contributions to technoscientific experiments by scientists of more-than-human beings, developers of other-than-human machines, and observers of extra-Earthly planetarities. Experimental philosophy is not the intellectual handmaiden to robot-painters, to ecologists who use sophisticated sensing technologies to interpret the forests, fungi and flora, or to astronomers who develop new technologies of perception to simulate astrobiological worlds. Rather, we propose that philosophical inquiry represents and performs experiments in method—what philosopher Anna Tsing describes as “the arts of noticing.” Experimenting in and with philosophy is a nutritive, zealous, and multi-pronged perspicacity. We seek a modality of philosophical inquiry that will not merely engage in second-order reflection on the technoscientific order it observes, but instead be in direct dialog with that order. We will shape, not merely describe, correspondent technoscientific methods to mold future-facing ways of being in and becoming with the world, and perhaps places beyond Earth.
The Berggruen’s exploration of the metamorphosing human subject alongside emergent concepts of relational non-human otherness and the planetary proposes a mode of hypothesis, experimentation, and creation to critically inquire:
What will life become?
Our experimental philosophy around that question will avoid well-trodden frameworks that have failed to address lively flourishing beyond the phenomenology, politics, and species-being of the human.
First, we will not invert ontological hierarchies sketched by ancient Greek scholars that crystallized in Enlightenment European thought—a cascading sequence of beings, beginning with angels and ending with inanimate minerals—simply by flipping its vertical order. (That epistemic move would perform “standpoint theory,” a position that evolved out of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic and Marx’s capitalist/proletariat relationship, claiming that those in the most marginalized social positions have epistemic privilege over all other viewpoints.)
Nor will we embrace ontological relativism—an orthogonal rotation of that vertical order—that flattens the ontology of all lively beings, and in its most radical form, grants rights and agential possibilities equally to all, from the invasive spotted lanternfly, to humans, to C. elegans, to glaciers, to brine-loving deep ocean eels, etc. A horizontal ontology makes it profoundly difficult (and profoundly tedious) to induce real-world social and planetary change because tabulating all entities’ preferences with equal measure results in universal dissatisfaction. (This move is philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour’s “parliament of things” that rejects the dualism of pensée moderne’s strict separation of subjects from objects, claiming that the latter category should be incorporated into the realm of rights.)
Conceptualizing histories of multispecies philosophy through the shapes of the vertical and horizontal ontologies is merely one way to find philosophical footing. But what mathematicians call the x- and y-axes that compose the Cartesian coordinate system is an apt epistemic object to work against, given that its eponymous maker, René Descartes, developed the influential Enlightenment philosophy that severed mind from body, man from nature. Given this initial framework, how can we at the Berggruen Institute pursue what life will become from a more generative position?