“Immanent naturalism” is political theorist William E. Connolly’s term for a tradition of thought that doesn’t seek ultimate explanations, ahistorical forces, or transcendental frameworks to give meaning to the world; rather, it finds meaning enough in the world as it is experienced by mortals like us.

The general idea is that the world itself is richer, more mysterious, and more radically open — to change, emergent complexity, and innovation — than we tend to think, and that by opening ourselves to that richness and mystery, we extend our capacities for deepening the experience of life for ourselves and those we interact with. In a sense, immanent naturalism is another term for an earth- and life-embracing ethic that conceives of the universe as fundamentally open and pluralistic, and that refrains from any form of closure including the closure that thinks it’s figured it all out.

Connolly’s writings on immanent naturalism include sections of Neuropolitics and Capitalism and Christianity, American Style; follow the highlights in the linked book excerpts. See also his reply to Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age at the Immanent Frame blog.

“Immanent naturalists,” Connolly writes, “such as, variously, Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Deleuze ground ethics in the first instance in an attachment to the world or a gratitude for being that includes and exceeds the identities infused into them. We do not ask, in the first instance, why we should be moral. We ask, in the first instance, how to enliven and cultivate care for an abundance of life over identity that already infuses us to some degree.” Connolly writes of being guided by a “visceral gratitude” and “care for a protean diversity of being,” and his various writings work out the implications of what that might mean for politics and culture, and by what methods and techniques we might be able to get better at it.

On this blog, I use the term “immanent naturalism” a little hesitantly and experimentally, thinking it through as I speak/write, to see if it makes sense and if it might catch on (with me, with others) or not. Part of my hesitation comes from the dualistic implications of naturalism (natural versus supernatural or unnatural, naturalist versus idealist). Connolly’s point, like the Spinozist and Deleuzian traditions he draws from, is that nature includes everything that is. For Deleuze, it’s not just everything that is, but everything that has the potential to be, that is virtually there in the structure of the universe, i.e., the structure of becoming (whether it ends up becoming actual or not). Naturalism, therefore, doesn’t have to only deal with empirically knowable existing things; it can be a matter of recognizing that the world is process, and that the invisible and unknowable, for partial and situated observer-participants like ourselves, is also part of that world.

Conceivably, this “immanent naturalist” rubric might fade into others over time here – which makes sense, because I intend it to cover such a broad range of thinking (process philosophy, “social nature,” actor-network theory, autopoietic systems theory, ecosemiotics, embodied cognition, etc.).

See also On immanence.

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