- IntroductionIsabelle Stengers and the Dramatization of Philosophy
“Dic cur hic”
In what may seem like an uncharacteristic passage by someone who otherwise described himself as the typical example of the Victorian Englishman, Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that “[t]he notion of pure thought in abstraction from all expression is a figment of the learned world. A thought is a tremendous form of excitement” (Modes 36). It is the patterned signature of its expression that not only gives thought its own distinct character, but also propels it out into the world, exciting its environment with a new variation of interests. Without this ability to repattern, even if just slightly, the atmosphere of feeling in which they are immersed, to make a difference by shifting the way in which a situation may matter, thoughts would all be equally uninteresting. This is why, as it is expressed, a thought is like “a stone thrown into a pond.” Shaking its environment with its ripples, “it disturbs the whole surface of our being” (36).
I am reminded of this passage in Whitehead’s Modes of Thought quite often. But I am drawn back to it with distinct force as I undertake the task of introducing Isabelle Stengers’s thought, and the ripples cultivated throughout what to the best of my knowledge is the first special issue in the Anglophone world dedicated to her philosophy, into this learned world. I’m drawn to it because such introductions would often seem to invite something quite different from this expressive excitement. Indeed, academic custom would perhaps advise that the importance of a philosophy be introduced, to some degree at least, in abstraction from it. To the degree, that is, that the scope of its ripples, those that may remind us of a philosopher’s achievements, their distinguished trajectory, and the breadth of their reception, may be abstracted from the singular patterning of the ripples their philosophy generates.
Nothing, in this case, would prevent such an account. Ever since her collaboration with the Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine on the implications [End Page 3] of the research on dissipative structures and irreversibility, and throughout the course of her now extensive writings, Stengers has indeed crafted an eminent career that has not only earned her the highly prestigious grand prize for philosophy from the Académie Française, but has also established her as a world-renowned philosopher of science, and an original reader of Deleuze and Whitehead. Furthermore, thanks to her interventions in the so-called Science Wars, and her constructively divergent association with the sociologist of science Bruno Latour, many aspects of Stengers’s philosophy have already become well-known in the Anglophone world as an influential contribution to the post-disciplinary field known as ‘science and technology studies,’ and she has been recognized as an important and demanding voice within the emerging field of environmental humanities.
Many other achievements could be added to this list. But such introductory habits are always somewhat paradoxical. Because more than just abstracting the scope of the ripples from their own patterning, this mode of recognition, however habitual, however celebratory, effectively judges a philosopher’s importance according to another pattern, one that may be relevant to the discipline, or to the academy, but not to the way in which the philosophy in question may have succeeded in transfiguring the atmospheres of feeling to which it has connected. Not, that is, to the fact that “philosophy never reverts to its old position after the shock of a great philosopher” (Whitehead, Process 11). If there is always something of a paradox in such introductions, they feel especially inadequate when it comes to addressing the philosophy of Isabelle Stengers. And not just because of the greatness of the shock her philosophy may involve, a shock that is very much alive and kicking, progressively gaining amplitude and reverberation. They feel inadequate because nothing could be farther from Stengers’s philosophical signature than the celebration of something called “pure thought” in abstraction from its dramatic excitement, as if thought were ever a neutral operation to be carried out purely in the sky of ideas.
Deleuze put it provocatively when he said: “Given any...