3rd European Summer School for Process Thought

Commencing on the 25th of August 2014 and lasting until August 29th, the 3rd European Summer School for Process Thought took place this year at the Haus der Universität in Düsseldorf, Germany. The remarkable 19th century building, a former banking house refurbished to fit the needs of 21st century academia, provided the perfect setting for an entire week of intense philosophical discussion. This year’s summer school, entitled The Metaphysical Foundations of a Non-Dualistic Environmental Ethics, was organized by Dennis Sölch and Helmut Maaßen of the German Whitehead Society. Thanks to a generous funding by the Volkswagen Foundation, scholars from Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Ukraine, and the US were invited to participate in the memorable event. The deepest gratitude is owed to both the organizers and the Volkswagen Foundation.

To say the least, the conference covered a vast array of subjects. Papers and presentations were given on mathematics, bioethics, metaphysics, environmental ethics, physics, education, biology, aesthetics, landscape philosophy, and many others. Every topic and theme, it seems, had its say. And though it was unusually cold and damp come Monday morning, this didn’t stop the summer school from beginning at 9:00am sharp with a lively and thoughtful presentation by Barbara Muraca, newly appointed professor at Oregon State University in the United States. In her presentation, which called for what she labels a Deep Anthropocentrism, she put forth a vision of the world where intrinsic value of entities are properly acknowledged and that an adequate ethic system must necessarily be based on a relational rather than an instrumental model. It was Whiteheadian at its very core. Following Barbara was the first of four Seminars, this one lead by Helmut Maaßen, on the topics of Spinoza and Gandhi and what might be learned from their respective thought. The presentation was followed by the ever-important coffee and snack break; without them none of us would have made it successfully through the week. Regarding the breaks, the group is especially thankful to Martin Rönsch and Alicia Verlinden; without their help coordinating meal plans, preparing refreshments and snacks, and other technical help the conference would not have run nearly as smoothly as it did. Zachary Gekas of Fordham University in New York City, one of the two American presenters, gave the second presentation of the day and articulated the importance of Foresight in its application to a proper environmental ethic. After him followed a presentation by Roland Cazalis of Namur, Belgium titled “From Ethics to Ethos: An Organismic Perspective,” which expressed an understanding of ecology as ultimate connectedness. Fourth to present was Martin Kaplicky of Charles University in Prague, whose talk questioned the soundness of current tendencies in aesthetics. Rather than focusing on the immediacy of sight and sound, Martin tried to bring to light the importance of the dim background feelings of our aesthetic judgments, which are too often seen as subsidiary. The final presentation, by Moirika Reker of Lisbon, Portugal, focused on the importance of landscape in its contribution to human thought and the role it plays in environmental ethics. The final event at Haus der Universität was the meeting for European Society for Process Thought followed shortly after by the first of many unique and tasteful dinners, where both food and thought were shared equally. The first day certainly set the tone for what was to come.

Day two, equally dreary (in terms of the weather), began with a presentation by Maria-Teresa Teixeira of the University of Lisbon, with a paper titled “Ontological Ethics as the Foundation for Environmental Ethics.” In it she emphasized both the value inherent in existence and each being’s “right” to existence, something that must be taken into account when humans think about our relation to the world. Eleonora Mingarelli, Ph.D candidate at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, followed Maria Teixeira with a presentation on William James and subjectivism, where she thoughtfully articulated James’ conception of what he calls pure experience and the importance of a pluralistic ontology. The second of the seminars followed soon after, and this one was lead by Barbara Muraca. Barbara organized the time into an opportunity for each presenter to share ideas amongst themselves and then to think about future directions in which to take Whiteheadian thought along with potential subjects for following Summer Schools. It was certainly a benefit to all present. The third presentation of Tuesday came to us from Denys Zhadiaiev, Associate Professor at the National Mining University of Ukraine, where he highlighted the importance of correctly interpreting and describing the environmental problems human beings face, while offering a new concept: “healthy anthropocentrism.” He additionally proposed that we consider the general character of fundamental ethical values not as something contradictory to process, but as the regularity of processes in general. Tim Grafe, Ph.D. candidate from Münster University, followed Denys with a comparison between Friedrich Schelling and Whitehead. Tim laid out similarities between the two thinkers in hopes of highlighting the importance of human responsibility in a processive universe. Magda Costa Carvalho, from Azores University in Portugal, finished off the presentations for the day with a talk on Henri Bergson and the importance of his notion of élan vital. It was yet another day and thoughtful and insightful presentations. But this was not where it was to end. The final event of the evening was in the form of a public lecture by Brian Henning of Gonzaga University. His presentation focused on the close relationship between Whitehead’s philosophy and the gradual development of land ethics, made perhaps most popular by the naturalist Aldo Leopold. Brian showed how process thinkers were and have been prominent figures in environmental scholarship, and he sought to show how Whitehead’s philosophy truly does provide an adequate means by which an environmental ethics can be created. It was a lecture of skillful presentation, clarity of importance, and depth of thought.

Day three began with a presentation by Dennis Sölch, who spoke about the work of entomologist William Morton Wheeler. Comparing Wheeler with Whitehead, Dennis articulated the idea of emergent unity and complexity in nature and how both thinkers introduce and emphasize the importance of teleology, something mostly denied by modern biologists. After Dennis came the third seminar of the week; this one was lead by Brian Henning, who discussed, given a Whiteheadian system, the moral responsibility (not obligation) of attentiveness to all entities. Lehel Simon of Hungary was the second presenter of the day and gave a paper titled “Gayness from Biology to Bioethics,” where he argued for the biological necessity of homosexuality (both human and non-human) in the functioning of any healthy ecosystem. After Lehel came the tour of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, an art museum that began as a collection of Swiss-German artist Paul Klee’s famous works. Over the years, the museum has acquired numerous unique pieces, most notably from American artist Jackson Pollock and Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. It is considered to have one of the premier art collections in Düsseldorf.

Vesselin Petrov from Bulgaria was the first presenter on day four. In his presentation he spoke of what he refers to as a “Cosmocentric Ethics.” It introduced the idea that humanity’s ethical concern can only be considered adequate when extended not only to the limits of this planet but to all entities in the known universe. Maria Teixeira directed the fourth and final seminar with a presentation drawing comparisons between Henry David Thoreau, Henri Bergson, Alfred Whitehead, and Mahatma Gandhi in order to emphasize the importance of self-sufficiency and a living a simple life. Shortly after was a guided tour of Düsseldorf University, where the group ate lunch together and was able to visit the newly inaugurated Whitehead Archive, something made possible by a generous endowment of books by Helmut Maaßen and the German Whitehead Society. After the university tour, Jeroen B. J. van Dijk, a mechanical engineer from the Netherlands, presented a paper laying out recent work in Process Physics. He argued that the mind-brain’s anticipatory conscious Now ultimately originates from the universe organizing itself as a “neuromorphic” process with a creatively unfolding present moment and intrinsic subjectivity. Aljoscha Berve, both recent Ph.D. recipient and co-director of the 2nd Summer School for Process Thought, gave a presentation examining to what extend this generation is responsible for the well being of subsequent ones. Although the future is not yet actual, a conclusion made was “yes,” we are nonetheless responsible to the possibilities and how we influence the way the world unfolds. Michael Rahnfeld, an independent philosopher working with various health academies and universities, then presented a paper in which he showed how, on the basis of ecological remarks in Whitehead that point in the direction of Lotka-Volterra’s population dynamics, cellular automats are more beneficial for modeling than continuous differential equations. Bogdan Ogrodnik, President of the Polish Whitehead Society, finished the day by movingly presenting an argument for environmental care. Bogdan took seriously the notion of pain and suffering in the world in hopes of emphasizing the need for empathy. He urges us to feel, in a very Whiteheadian sense, the very things others are experiencing in the hope that we are receptive and responsive to their needs.

Spyridon Koutroufinis, from the Technical University of Berlin, began the final day of the conference with a paper examining what he takes to be mistakes in modern science’s understanding of living beings. Spyridon argued that organisms abide by an essentially different logic, since they have a unique ability of self-tuning dynamical attributes, ones not properly accounted for in modern physics. He showed both that Whitehead’s understanding of process transcends the logic of contemporary physics and is congenial to the logic of organisms. Ultimately he contended that a proper understanding of living beings is one where indeterminate relations and subjective experience in reactions to environmental conditions are taken more seriously than they currently are. Surprise guest and Whitehead scholar Michel Weber finished off the Summer School with a presentation introducing what he calls the “Philosophy of the Titanic.” It examined the immediate perils in which the world currently finds itself and offered an eye-opening illustration of the dangers, both political and environmental, that we all face and how we are responsible making both ourselves and others aware of them in the hopes that something is done.

Like summer schools before it, the 3rd European Summer School for Process Thought provided an opportunity for Whitehead scholars, scientists, engineers, students, and ethicists to come together for both scholarship and friendship. New relationships were formed, and old ones were strengthened. The days were sometimes long, but each was filled with something new and something significant. It is only likely that the same will be the case at the next Summer School in Sofia, Bulgaria. Yet again there will be an opportunity for the discussion, study, and research of all the facets of process thought.

Zachary Gekas