Tag Archive: immanent naturalism


I recently worked my way through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which, since its publication in 2007, has become one of the most widely reviewed and critically lauded books on religion and secularism — and which, in a tangential way, was one of the provocations that led me to start this blog in the first place. What follows are some thoughts on Taylor’s notions of immanence and transcendence, and on the “third way” of radical immanence, or immanent naturalism, that has become an important conversation partner in the debate that has arisen in the wake of Taylor’s book. (See The Immanent Frame for some of this debate, especially the contributions by William Connolly, Elizabeth Hurd, Lars Tonder, Patrick Lee Miller, and Taylor himself.) These thoughts are taken from a longer argument that I presented at last week’s ISSRNC conference in Amsterdam.

It’s rare that a nearly 900-page tome of dense and circuitous philosophical and historical prose gets the kind of attention A Secular Age has gotten, and the fact that Taylor is as brilliant, respectful, and nuanced a thinker as he is makes it a book well worth celebrating. Conferences have been held in its honor, and the Social Science Research Institute-supported blog The Immanent Frame, on “secularism, religion, and the public sphere” and named after one of the book’s central concepts, has attracted the contributions of dozens of high-profile thinkers to weigh in on the themes raised by Taylor. (The list includes Talal Asad, Arjun Appadurai, Robert Bellah, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Martin Marty, Wendy Brown, Craig Calhoun, Jose Casanova, William Connolly, Saba Mahmoud, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Roger Gottlieb, Timothy Fitzgerald, Todd Gitlin, Christina Lafont, and Taylor himself.)

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Immanent naturalism

“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.

An online space for environmental cultural theory, this weblog has two primary objectives:

(1) To communicate about issues at the intersection of ecological, political, and cultural thought and practice, especially at the interdisciplinary junctures forming in and around the fields of ecocriticism , green cultural studies, political ecology, environmental communication, ecophilosophy, and related areas (biosemiotics, geophilosophy, social nature, poststructuralist and liberation ecologies, zoontologies, urbanatures, animist liberation theologies — invent your own neologisms); and

(2) To contribute to the development of a non-dualist understanding of nature/culture, mind/body, spirit/matter, structure/agency, and worldly relations in general. Dualisms aren’t inherently bad, but these ones have become stultifying; they contribute to the log-jam in which environmental thinking has been caught for too long. To this end, the blog is interested in philosophies of process, ontologies of immanence and becoming, and epistemologies of participation, relation, and dialogue – that is, ways of understanding and acting that take ideas and practices, bodies and minds, subjects and objects, perceptions and representations, agency and structure, to be fundamentally inseparable, creative, and always in motion. The blog will be a place where non-dual mind (/body, subject/object) meets non-dual world (nature/culture), or where rigpa meets anima.

(For more on these topics, see the posts on immanence, immanent naturalism, rigpa and anima, geophilosophy, green cultural studies, between Continental and environmental philosophy, and the “P-R Theory 101″ links in the right-hand column.)

The blog aims to be a useful resource for scholars, graduate students, and the interested public. As the boundary between scholarship and the wider world of public thinking gets ever more more blurred thanks to digital technology, the distinction between lay and scholarly loses its cogency. The original idea was for the blog to serve as a forum for thinking in and around the Environmental Thought and Culture Graduate Concentration at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont. The broadening described here is an outgrowth of that.

A blog, like an idea, is only successful to the extent that it germinates, grows, connects, and takes on a life of its own. This one began as one person’s (self-) prod to think out loud and to forge connections in thought, word, and image. To what extent it grows beyond that will become evident over time.

For a summary of the blog’s first year, see here; and of the second year, here.

This version updated (slightly) on December 9, 2010 (after the migration of the blog to WordPress).

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to come on this blog…

Over time, I’ll be posting snippets of work-in-progress here that arise from the two manuscripts I’m currently working on. The first of these manuscripts pulls together cultural case studies I’ve done over the years into a conceptually unified argument for an immanent-naturalist “multicultural political ecology,” while the second examines cinema from this perspective. The first is really more empirical than it sounds, examining a range of developments in the arts and media and specific struggles over “nature” as it’s perceived, defined, imagined, and lived. Some of this is a development from my first book, Claiming Sacred Ground, which examined struggles over nature and landscape at two sites of ecospiritual pilgrimage (Glastonbury and Sedona), but the current book applies this approach to a much broader range of cultural phenomena. A third volume, still on the more distant horizon, will flesh out the implications of “immanentism” for ecological, political, and religious philosophy.

As I’ve stated before on this blog, the term “immanent naturalism” is political theorist William Connolly’s term, and I’m using it 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, etc.). 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. But conceivably, this “immanent naturalist” rubric might fade into others over time – which makes sense, because it’s intended to cover such a broad range of thinking (“social nature,” actor-network theory, autopoietic systems theory, ecosemiotics, embodied cognition, process philosophy, etc.).

Some of these posts will deal with how these different strands of what I’m calling “immanent naturalism” deal with the dualisms of nature/culture, spirit/matter, body/mind, and real/imagined. These aren’t the only dualisms that have bogged down our imagination – think male/female, black/white, East/West, etc. – but they are the ones that keep in place the sticky log-jam of thinking between the sciences and the humanities that will have to be unstuck and unjammed if humans are to deal effectively with the social and environmental challenges that face us. (Now there’s a big claim! But it’s one that underlies everything on this blog, so if you’re not convinced, well, then, so be it…)

As you can guess, the blog, then, is also a way to keep myself working, to keep myself honest, and, perhaps over time, generate some discussion with like-minded (or other-minded) theorists and researchers.

book list

On the surface, “immanence” would appear to favor certain religiosities (paganisms, pantheisms, animisms, earth spiritualities) over others (transcendentalist monotheisms, rigid dualisms, Buddhist “extinctionism,” et al). But its resonance works within traditions as well: towards panentheistic strains of Christianity, where the Christ is seen as in-dwelling, where Easter is the rebirth of nature and life as well as of social relations after the long hard winter, where Mary is the cosmos; or toward a boddhisattvic liberationist Buddhism that cherishes life rather than seeking to flee from it.

Immanentism redirects our attention to what is going on in the moment-to-moment shaping of the world, to our experience and ability to shift things in one direction or another, to karmic conditions as open-ended rather than fixed. When we grasp something (the self, political power, the object of our desire), we lose it. Immanentism redirects us to the between: the grasping, the finding and losing, the power-to and power-with, the swelling current that pushes for change (e.g., in the build-up to the last US election) rather than the icon of change it gives rise to (Obama) though that icon be instrumental to the change.

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Immanence

Immanence suggests co-implication, the implication of one thing in another (spirit in matter, mind in body, movement in repose, humans in nature), nonduality, the vitality of becoming rather than the stasis of being, the sufficiency of life in its generative relational flux, its vessels of light scattered for our gathering in each moment of darkness.

Philosophers of immanence, from Heraclitus and Nagarjuna to Spinoza, Whitehead, and Deleuze, find inspiration in the middle of things, the moment-to-moment movement of thought, awareness, connection, action, rather than in large, transcendent, ventriloquistic forces (such as ideologies, ultimate causes, or apocalyptic narratives).

Immanence suggests a continuity and empathic resonance rippling between things. “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” John Muir wrote, “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” This could have well been written by Nagarjuna or by Jacques Derrida in an errant wander outside the text (as his later writings often did). Derrida may be popularly known for saying that “il n-y a pas d’hors-text,” or “there is no outside-the-text,” but his writings on ethics, religion, politics, and animality make clear that this “no outside” is more akin to a Zen koan or Nagarjuna’s “emptiness” than to a denial of bodies, spirits, and whatever else. Like Muir, both Derrida and Nagarjuna posit a world of what Buddhists call “codependent arising” (and see here), where things, ideas, and selves arise and make sense only in relation to others in a process of ceaseless becoming, the rhizomic connectivity of “and… and,” as Deleuze and Guattari put it, rather than the binarism of “either/or.”

This blog, like that process, will seek connections between environmental philosophy, cultural theory (especially in its poststructuralist and postconstructivist variants), and sciences and philosophies of the east, the west, and the ne(i)ther (the postcolonial, the fourth world, et al) — connections to help make sense of the world in its current states of unrest, swerve, systemic shift, transition, and (r)evolution.

(“Really, (r)evolution toward what?” you ask. How about to a socially and ecologically sustainable, post-carbon, self-renewing, radically democratic, globally just, and bioregionally diverse society. Murray Bookchin, I think, had spoken about utopianism being a necessity in our time. That would be effective, informing, inspiring, as opposed to pie-in-the-sky dreamy utopianism.)

An ethic of immanence is one of responsiveness shimmering across animate bodies to feel the collective breathing, the communion of subjectivity.

Every blog has its reason for being. The idea behind this one was originally to serve as a forum for thinking in and around the Environmental Thought and Culture Graduate Concentration, which I coordinate at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont.

But that idea mutated as I realized that there isn’t yet a place that acts as a forum for a kind of alternative tradition of thinking about nature, culture, process, politics, and the spiritual (in the broadest sense of the word) that William Connolly calls “immanent naturalism” and that he, among others, associates with innovative activity in environmental and political theory and activism today. That’s part of the inspiration for this blog, so some of the thinkers and ideas that make up that loose “tradition” may be popping up a lot, if not in person at least in reference.

(For definitions of terms used here, see “Immanence” and the other links under “About” at the top of the right column on the Main page of this blog. Connolly’s own writings on immanent naturalism include sections of Neuropolitics and Capitalism and Christianity, American Style; follow the highlights in the linked book excerpts. 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 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.)

But the more practical goal of this blog is to be a means of communication about issues at the intersection of environmental, political, and cultural theory, especially in the disciplinary interstices inhabited by such fungal intellectual growths as ecocriticism , political ecology, green cultural studies, eco-poststructuralism, environmental communication, and so on (biosemiotics, geophilosophy, animist liberation theology — invent your own neologisms). Where culture meets nature meets consciousness…

So I think of it as a resource: for grad students, for fellow scholars working in these areas, for lay folks interested in these ideas (the boundary between scholarship and the wider world of public thinking gets ever more more blurred thanks to the internet), and for myself – to keep working and communicating outside of the usual framework of publishing, research, etc. A blog is, understandably, more laid-back, unrefereed, and stream-of-consciousness than other forms of intellectual work, so this one may get bulletin-boardy and diaryish, or just inactive, at times.

A blog also, like an idea, is only successful to the extent that it grows, connects, germinates, and takes on a life of its own. This one will start out as just me posting, and we’ll see what happens next. The internet is littered with the detritus of dead blogs and broken links, and if this one goes that route, so be it. But hopefully it won’t.