On ‘The Dynamics of Transformation’

Grant Maxwell is the author of ‘The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View’, ‘How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll’, and ‘Beyond Plato’s Cave’. He has served as a professor at Baruch College and Lehman College in New York, and he has written for the American Philosophical Association blog, American Songwriter magazine, and the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture.


Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Grant Maxwell: I forged a somewhat circuitous path in becoming a philosopher. I did my undergrad degree in English at the University of Texas at Austin, where my primary mentor, Adam Zachary Newton, was a literary theorist working with philosophers like Derrida and Levinas. I did my PhD in English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, and although I took a number of philosophy courses during my time there, I discovered that the philosophers to whom I was drawn were taught much more extensively in English departments than in philosophy, for which the analytic tradition was dominant. After a few years immersed in the poststructuralists, I took several courses with Joan Richardson that introduced me to William James, Henri Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead, who have remained three of my primary philosophical influences. I served as a professor for a few years at Baruch College and Lehman College before turning to writing and editing full-time.

Henri Bergson

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your ideas and writing practice?

GM: In addition to James, Bergson, and Whitehead, some of my other favorites are Leibniz, Hegel, Nietzsche, Jean Gebser, Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, C.G. Jung, and Jungians like James Hillman and Richard Tarnas.

RB: Your book, The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View, presents a radically novel theory of transformation and offers 12 concepts that trace an emerging world view after postmodernism. Can you introduce these concepts?

GM: I think of Dynamics as a kind of condensed introduction to the books I intend to write. After finishing my dissertation on the philosophy of rock and roll, revised and published as How Does It Feel?, Dynamics was my attempt to distil and integrate some of the central concepts of the theorists I’d been immersed in, most of whom suggest in some form that we are on the cusp of a novel mode of thought after the modern. Particularly drawing on Tarnas, it seems that the postmodern may constitute a multigenerational period of transition to a potentially novel worldview not specifically defined in relation to the modern, though of course it remains to be seen whether or not we will successfully achieve this transition, which can be conceived as something like a collective initiatory ordeal.

The first concept is the participatory quality of process, which is partially derived from Jamesian pragmatism, a mode of thought that finds expression in various valences in a number of other thinkers, including the constructivism of Deleuze, Guattari, and Stengers, whom I didn’t begin reading extensively until after Dynamics was published, but whose work is genealogically related to pragmatism, which has served further to deepen and complicate my thinking on these issues. Very briefly, this concept suggests that reality is far more malleable than we often assume, and that we construct, with varying degrees of awareness, our individual and collective realities in relational negotiation with the constraints and potentialities of process.

William James

The second conceptual complex is novelty and the will to believe, especially derived from James, Bergson, and Whitehead, which recognizes that the premises we adopt require credence, even if those premises are constituted in the negative rejection of other positive premises, like atheism or the poststructuralist incredulity toward metanarratives, so that as soon as we speak or act, we are acting on assumptions about the nature of reality, whether conscious or unconscious, and that in order to construct novel modes of thought and relation, we must willfully leap into new domains.

The third concept is what I refer to as an integrative method. Actually, the new book I’m working on, which I think will be called Integration and Difference, traces the history of this particular concept through about twenty texts from Heraclitus, Plato, Nicholas of Cusa, and Leibniz to Derrida, Deleuze, Hillman, and Stengers, passing through most of the thinkers I’ve mentioned thus far. The question this collectively refined and elaborated concept addresses is what to do about opposed, conflicting, incompatible, paradoxical, or otherwise incommensurable truths, modes of thought, values, judgments, inclinations, and affects. The approach I trace in Dynamics is the reconciliation of opposites evident in Heraclitus, Plato, Cusanus, Hegel, and a number of others, which I’ve lately begun to conceive, based on the work of Nietzsche, Gebser, Jung, Whitehead, Hillman, Stengers, and especially Deleuze, as an opening to a more expansive integration of difference, or differentiated integration, for which the reconciliation of opposites is a special case. So I think Dynamics provides a concise introduction to this mode of thought, which has inevitably become increasingly subtle and complex for me as I’ve continued to work with these thinkers. I could discuss this subject endlessly, and the manuscript I’m currently writing is already significantly longer than Dynamics, but this concept can be expressed in its most straightforward valence in John Stuart Mill’s suggestion, which I’m paraphrasing, that modes of thought are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny, and that the negative denial of a positive mode of thought is generally instrumental for the emergence of differentiated contrast, which serves as the negative space in the constructed lattice of collective worldviews.

Isabelle Stengers

I think I should probably abbreviate these concepts a bit more or we’ll never make it through this interview, so I’ll just briefly evoke them:

discontinuity in various domains, from atomic electron transitions and punctuated equilibrium to political, scientific, and artistic revolutions, psychological breakthroughs, and conversion experiences;

the development of process through relatively discrete, emergent stages in the individual and collective domains, for instance in the five-stage schema proposed by Gebser, though other schemas can serve to elicit other aspects of process;

the recognition that we seem to be undergoing the multigenerational emergence of a novel mode of thought in a discontinuous rupture resonant with earlier, relatively sudden historical transformations, like the axial era centered on the sixth century BCE, the emergence of Christianity in the West, and the emergence of modernity mediated by the renaissance and the scientific revolution;

the fractal quality of process, which is the recognition that the same processual dynamics complexly repeat, with subtle differences, in domains across scale, from those accessible to physics, chemistry, and biology to the psychological and sociological domains;

Koch Snowflake, fractal dimensionality of approximately 1.26

the idea especially expressed in Jungian archetypes, Whiteheadian eternal objects, and (I was surprised to discover) in concepts from Deleuze, Guattari, and Stengers that there are formal potentialities and constraints immanent to process that condition the reality that can be constructively elicited. In fact, since I’m particularly interested in Deleuze at the moment, I’ll just mention that Deleuze scholars are increasingly recognizing that, in addition to his primary trinity of influences, Spinoza, Bergson, and Nietzsche, he was also deeply influenced by Jung and Whitehead;

the idea that time is not only linear and quantitative, but that particular times have particular qualities describable in terms of archetypal complexes, relational, agential potencies that manifest in a multitude of ways in many domains depending on various contextual factors, including the degree of conscious participation of the individual and the collective. This is the constructive reimagining of formal causation characteristic of Jungian synchronicity, which Deleuze, Guattari, Hillman, and Tarnas have all developed in important ways;

the reimagining of final causation undertaken by theorists from Leibniz through James, Bergson, and Whitehead, for whom there is a teleological inclination in the nature of process, not toward fated, pregiven ends, as was often asserted by ancient thinkers, but toward the emergence of novel entities and modes of thought, and toward the increasing differentiation and integration of process, which Whitehead terms contrast and concrescence;

the recognition that the successive emergence of discontinuous epochs through historical process is evidently tracing not a linear series, but a trajectory which is described by an exponential curve, so that the scale of each emergence has diminished by an order of magnitude: billions of years for the emergence of life, millions of years for hominids, hundreds of thousands of years for humans, thousands of years for complex civilization (writing, cities, etc.), hundreds of years for modern science and technology, and decades for computers and the internet, all of which apparently constitute radically novel emergent stages of process;

the concretion of time, largely derived from Gebser, which suggests that the emergence of novel domains of process on individual and collective scales is mediated  through increasingly expansive degrees of freedom constituted in novel constructions of temporal consciousness. And, based on the work of Benoit Mandelbrot and the physicist Laurent Nottale, and perhaps echoed in some pages from Deleuze and Guattari, it might be suggested that time is describable as a fractal dimension, a fraction of a dimension between zero and one.

Figure from The Dynamics of Transformation, logarithmic scale

RB: The book form necessitates a linear structure with a distinct sequence of chapters, but you see the 12 concepts more as being an intertwined network. Can you say something about how the concepts are intertwined and the organizing principle you had for determining the order of chapters?

GM: The twelve concepts extrapolated from the various thinkers I’ve mentioned, and others, are intimately intertwined in a semiotic network as part of an integrated emergent mode of thought, so it was necessary to refer to the other eleven concepts in order to express each individual concept. With this in mind, I structured each chapter so that the primary concept of that particular chapter was explicated in sequential relation to each of the other concepts, which allowed me to draw out resonances between these concepts and weave them into a relatively coherent whole.

RB: You discuss the tendency of beings to evolve through distinct, emergent stages of different orders of complexity. Can you say something more about this and how this relates to patterns and the importance of novelty?

GM: I find Gebser’s five-stage schema particularly efficacious for illuminating this aspect of the dynamics of process, which traces a nonhierarchical progression from the archaic structure of preverbal Homo sapiens through the magic structure predominant in tribal, shamanic, animistic cultures, through the mythical structure characteristic of the emergence of cities, writing, agriculture, and gods, through the mental structure which emerged incipiently in the axial era, and which became predominant in modernity, and which is predicated on oppositional binarity and the privileging of rationality over other modes of thought, and culminating in the integral structure, which is Gebser’s name for the novel mode of thought that is currently emerging into collective awareness, and which is closely related to the specific form of the integral calculus invented by Leibniz, distinguished from the Newtonian calculus particularly by the concept of the infinitesimal. These structures conserve the capacities differentiated in the temporally previous structures as essential elements of their emergence, and they fractally reiterate individual human development through conception, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and also, I suggest, they reiterate the evolutionary line leading to the human through the exponential progression from the emergence of life from nonlife through animals, hominids, and Homo to Homo sapiens. Each of these fractally reiterated stages individuates novel capacities while conserving and enfolding the previous structures in a process of differentiated integration.

Jean Gebser

RB: Can you say something about time and dimensionality in terms of the emergence of a new world view?

GM: The structures of consciousness delineated by Gebser correlate with different constructions of temporality, so that the archaic structure correlates with a pretemporal, undifferentiated, Edenic mode of consciousness experienced by infants and nonhuman animals, which is basically episodic. The magic, animistic mode discerns resonances between these episodic durations animated by the agential activities of ancestral and nature spirits, and then the mythical mode tends to construct these durational resonances as intertwining cycles of days, weeks, seasons, years, aeons, astronomical movements, and biological developments all mediated through gods and various other powers. Then the mental mode breaks from this enclosing eternal return to differentiate the linear, quantitative, historical temporality that attains its full expression with Newtonian absolute time, which becomes almost exclusively dominant in Western modernity. Finally, the integral structure overcomes the exclusive privileging of the modern construction of temporality by recognizing the validity of all previous temporal constructions characteristic of the different modes of consciousness, which Gebser extensively correlates with increasing degrees of freedom.

C.G. Jung

RB: In the Epilogue titled A Third Copernican Revolution: Archetypal Cosmology you recommend a method for discerning correlations between the external, physical cosmos and the internal, subjective psyche. Can you say more about this?

GM: Archetypal cosmology, a mode of thought with ancient and medieval precedents that finds an important reimagining in the work of Richard Tarnas, generalizes the Jungian concept of synchronicity to its logical consequences, for which each moment expresses a particular complex of archetypally describable qualities that correlate with both the movements of the material cosmos and with events in individual and collective experience. The Epilogue was conceived as something of a surprise ending, so I don’t want to be too explicit and spoil the surprise, as part of the project of Dynamics is to circle in upon a mode of thought that might allow readers less familiar with these concepts to enter into the relatively esoteric method of archetypal cosmology, which requires that a number of assumptions that are often taken for granted by contemporary culture, and even by many current philosophers, be brought into question, and understood as partial and contextual constructions of more expansive domains of potentiality and constraint.

Alfred North Whitehead

RB: Mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, wrote ‘A clash of doctrines is not a disaster, it is an opportunity’. Do you agree with this statement?

GM: I think this statement is often true, and this passage from Science and the Modern World goes to the heart of my current project, for which the figure of the “beautiful soul” discussed by Goethe, Hegel, Nietzsche, Deleuze, and many others is central. The phrase “beautiful soul” originated in the mid-eighteenth century with the German archaeologist and art historian Winckelmann, who influenced Nietzsche, and the figure was brought to broad public attention by Goethe’s 1795 novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, the classic bildungsroman, book VI of which is entitled “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul.” It tells the story of a woman who, struggling with some general undefined illness throughout her life, myopically ignores reality in all its problematic complexity pollyannaishly to assert that all conflicts and oppositions can be easily and painlessly reconciled in God. This somewhat unflattering depiction is a straightforward and rather prosaic account of a conventionally religious, sanctimonious pietist attitude, which reminds one in some ways of Nietzsche’s mother and sister. And indeed, Nietzsche dismissively employs the phrase in various works.

Lou Andreas-Salomé, Paul Rée, Friedrich Nietzsche

However, it has not been widely acknowledged in studies of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, in which the figure of the beautiful soul plays a prominent role, that this figure may have misogynist roots, as one might, in the context of twenty-first century feminism, understand why the conspicuously unnamed female protagonist in Goethe’s narrative would want to refrain from marriage and retire from public life in order to maintain her spiritual and practical autonomy rather than becoming a wife subservient to her husband and the patriarchal norms of her era. In fact, Goethe roughly based his narrative on the subsequently lost autobiography of a family friend, Susanne von Klettenberg, while the German novelist Friederike Helene Unger published a different version of the story, whose protagonist is named Mirabella, under an almost identical title in 1806, which appropriates the figure of the beautiful soul, a year before Hegel employed this figure in the Phenomenology of Spirit, to provide the countervalent depiction of a much more dynamic, active, creative, and healthy feminine figure. So it’s clear that the pervasive male interpretation of this figure, from Goethe in 1795 through Deleuze in 1968, demonstrates a vast unawareness of the situation of women in the eighteenth century, despite Deleuze’s generally keen attention to feminist concerns, making this particular woman a figure for an abstract idealism that avoids concrete action in the world and asserts that all conflict can be resolved in a state of perfect unity.

G.W.F. Hegel

Deleuze’s primary source for the figure of the beautiful soul appears to have been Hegel himself, who employs the figure to inoculate the dialectic against the fallacy that all oppositions can be confluently reconciled, so that one must “tarry with the negative” in order to produce a dialectical synthesis. Although Deleuze harshly critiques Hegel, and uniquely so in his work (as Catherine Malabou aptly recognizes in “Who’s Afraid of Hegelian Wolves?”), he was clearly influenced by Hegel enough to turn his own concept of the beautiful soul against him, so it seems only fair reciprocally to turn Deleuze’s critique of dialectical dualism against Deleuze himself, but only in order potentially to assist in his liberation from the one-sidedness of his critique, a subject I discuss at length in my current project. And it must be acknowledged that Deleuze anticipated the critique of his critique of Hegel’s critique of the beautiful soul, so that one might be forgiven for feeling a sense of vertigo as one reads the passages on this issue in Difference and Repetition, as Deleuze recognizes that a primary danger in propounding a purely differential philosophy free of the negative and identical of the dialectic is precisely that of the beautiful soul, which asserts that all differences are “reconcilable and federative,” a mode of thought which merely affirms difference without opposition. And having apparently inoculated his differential philosophy against the fallacy of the beautiful soul, Deleuze turns the fallacy back upon Hegel, accusing him of finding that even the bloodiest and most apparently irreconcilable oppositions are ultimately reconcilable in a return to identity, which Deleuze understands as a succumbing to the need to imagine the possibility of perfect, absolute solutions to problematic differences, whereas Deleuze finds that there are differences that can never be reconciled, or that if they are reconciled on one plane, these differences inevitably lead to other incommensurabilites, so that the idealist dream of attaining complete wholeness and oneness is a dangerous and totalizing fantasy.

Gilles Deleuze

And there is much truth in this critique, as the negative does not always lead to a reconciled identity for, as Jung understood, an essential aspect of the process of individuation is recognizing the other as genuinely other, withdrawing the projection of the Self into the other that animates the dialectic, itself an essential stage in the individuation process, to allow real differences to subsist that require often painfully negotiated, and often inadequate, compromises which eternally defer the ideal of complete reconciliation. Nevertheless, one might suggest that the proliferating accusations of the fallacy of the beautiful soul have something of the character of the Terror in the French Revolution, so that no revolutionary, even the leaders of the revolution like Danton and Robespierre, is spared condemnation and the guillotine, while in Unger’s novel, Mirabella is living the life that she wants to live, reading the books that she wants to read. As with the Terror, one cannot ultimately cleanse thought of the beautiful soul, but must rather patiently wait for the vertiginous counter-revolutions to the counter-revolutions to subside, so that not only the fallacy itself becomes something to guard against, but also the very denouncement of that fallacy, which carried to the opposite extreme itself becomes fallacious, and perhaps even subtly misogynist.

The Execution of Robespierre

Although Deleuze’s critique of Hegel using this concept derived from Hegel, and perhaps Nietzsche, who in turn both partially derived it from Goethe, certainly contains partial truth, this critique ironically plays the role of the Hegelian negative in relation to the Hegelian dialectic itself, impelling the dialectic to overcome itself by means of a mode of thought genetically related to, and thus deeply indebted to, the dialectic, but which nevertheless goes beyond it by showing that opposition is only one relation among a more expansive domain of possible relations, some of which are describable in terms of other topological relations in more complex manifolds than those implied in the single horizontal dimension of opposition, which finds its synthesis in a second, vertical dimension. This is an important kind of relation, not least because it is so deeply embedded in the very structure of language as Derrida so brilliantly and comprehensively demonstrates, but it is only one kind of relation among many, some of which exceed our ability to visualize geometrically.

By Deleuze’s definition, James, Bergson, and Whitehead could also potentially be dismissed as beautiful souls, though Deleuze was deeply influenced by all three. In fact, if Hegel plays a unique role for Deleuze as enemy, Whitehead plays a similarly unique role in that he receives perhaps the highest degree of praise lavished on any philosopher by Deleuze, including Deleuze’s trinity of Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Bergson, while receiving very little actual exposition in Deleuze’s work, which perhaps suggests that the English thinker exerted a more central influence on Deleuze than one might be led to assume by a cursory reading. In an excellent article called “Deleuze, Whitehead, and the ‘Beautiful Soul,’” Russell J. Duvernoy argues that Whitehead manages to elude the fallacy of the beautiful soul though, as with most Deleuze scholarship, he doesn’t bring the paradoxically universal validity of that fallacy into question, but rather generally subjects Whitehead to Deleuze’s authority. And the conceptual persona of Deleuze does indeed exude an admittedly overwhelming authority founded upon unquestionable and almost unique brilliance, which is ironically resonant with Hegel’s similarly dominant authority in the nineteenth century, and also with Whitehead in certain circles. In fact, it might even be suggested, as Frida Beckman does drawing on the work of Eleanor Kaufman, that Deleuze’s thought is so overwhelmingly powerful that it is often turned into a dogmatic orthodoxy, despite the extraordinarily heterodox quality of his work, so that a half century after Difference and Repetition, it may be necessary for Deleuzeans to begin more assertively to push against Deleuze’s limitations, especially in relation to Hegel, while still affirming his epochal brilliance. Nevertheless, Duvernoy convincingly and insightfully shows how Whitehead avoids the fallacy of the beautiful soul, marshaling complex and intricate arguments to demonstrate how Whitehead’s concrescent integration partially constituted in differentiated contrast is not merely a placid movement toward unification, though I would suggest, without rehearsing Catherine Malabou’s equally complex and insightful arguments, that the same is often true of Hegel. As Duvernoy shows, Whitehead’s recognition of evil and irreducible discord preclude him from being considered a beautiful soul, though it might be suggested that if one were to deemphasize the Absolute in Hegel’s work, an admittedly heterodox reading, the dialectical negative itself could be conceived as playing a similar differentiating function in Hegel, though the Hegelian negative operates primarily in the special case of oppositional difference.

However, pulling back to view this question in a wider frame, it might be suggested that there is not an especially compelling reason completely to submit Whitehead, or even Hegel, to Deleuze’s test, a trial and judgment which Duvernoy aptly recognizes is counter to the general trajectory of Deleuze’s thought toward the liberation from philosophy as legislation. But where Deleuze, despite his exhortation to affirmation, possesses an unmistakable drive toward denouncement primarily in relation to Hegel, Duvernoy quotes Stengers that Whitehead’s approach is not that of “a denouncer,” as can be witnessed in Whitehead’s much more restrained critique of Hegel. So it might be efficacious to allow the elder Whitehead to instruct Deleuze on this particular issue, even as he could benefit in significant ways from the younger philosopher’s mode of thought, to lead Deleuze from the harsh denouncement of Hegel to the acknowledgment of him as an important but limited precursor (and who among us is not limited?). In this way, one might recognize that the fallacy of the beautiful soul is not an unforgivable sin punishable by expulsion from the pure heights of philosophical illumination, paradoxically pure by means of the steely-eyed refusal of purity, but one of many archetypal potentialities that, when carried to an extreme, can enable certain kinds of insight but preclude others, just as the very denouncement of Hegel’s purported sin enacted by Deleuze is also an extreme of a different potentiality that can enable complementary insights but preclude the insights available to a different modality.

It appears that what is required is an integration of this opposition between the beautiful soul and that figure’s denouncement to recognize that both modes contain partial, limited validity, so that attaining a differentiated and contrasting balance between these incommensurable perspectives might be the most efficacious way to overcome this binarity. Though these entities may stubbornly and eternally resist reconciliation, they can at least be integrated as elements in an archetypal drama, actors wearing various masks whose narrative function is precisely to maintain their inexorable difference. In the end, we might even find that being a beautiful soul is no worse than it sounds, as Unger implies, not worthy of contempt or ridicule, but a stage of understanding that some of us might find ourselves able oppositionally to supersede, while still others of us might find ourselves able to go even further to see the legitimacy in the oppositional critique, but also to love and even to admire such a person. So despite the vast space Deleuze clears for the creation of novel concepts, in matters of life and death—or of death and rebirth—the Jamesian and Whiteheadian emphasis of integration over differentiation may be somewhat more efficacious for the living of life, a Whiteheadian “slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference” from the Deleuzean mode of thought with which James and Whitehead have so much in common, and by which Deleuze was deeply influenced. 

RB: In his seminal book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn describes the progress of science in terms of paradigm shifts. Are we in a paradigm shift in terms of a transformation of consciousness?

GM: I’d suggest that the political and social crises we’re currently enduring constitute a collective initiatory ordeal, the necessary egoic death before a potential rebirth into an emergent mode of relation, though whereas Kuhn remained ambivalent about whether or not scientific revolutions constitute progress or simply non-directional phase change, it seems clear to me that Whitehead is correct when he writes that “the essence of life is the teleological introduction of novelty.” The critical ordeal we’re undergoing clearly contains profound danger, most notably related to authoritarianism and climate change, which shouldn’t be downplayed or ignored, but I suspect that this current period is the last gasp of patriarchy and of the deficient phase of the modern worldview, and that we are in the midst of the birth labor of a discontinuously novel epoch.


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