A few thoughts about the role an ontology of motion and a performative new-materialism plays in my work as minister at the Cambridge Unitarian Church

The park opposite the Cambridge Unitarian Church this morning
In recent days I've had the opportunity to talk at length with a member of the Unitarian congregation here in Cambridge who is a philosopher with a Junior Research Fellowship at one of the nearby colleges. The conversation we had was both about conversation itself and also the role of a minister when open conversation is as foregrounded as it is here in the Cambridge congregation (see the morning order of service). During the course of our conversation I mentioned a piece I recently wrote called Being an umpire not a player which drew heavily on some ideas borrowed from the philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990). Since then we have had a useful exchange of emails and below is my own reply to his initial one. I reproduce it here because it says some things that I've been struggling to articulate for a while.


A few thoughts about the role an ontology of motion and a performative new-materialism plays in my work as minister at the Cambridge Unitarian Church

Thanks for your thoughtful and full reply. It was indeed very rich and has allowed me to say the following, which I don’t think I could have said without our conversation. Thank you.

In truth, for a long time I felt what you felt about Oakeshott’s thought about conversation as both ringing true and being regrettable, and my own thoughts have been circling around this for a while now. I’m also acutely aware that one is, as you note, in danger of bringing about ‘a rather diminished level of communication’ and an associated lack of ‘substance’. I don’t think either of us would like to see that occur.

This brings me to your (pertinent) questions to me, ‘Can you really be only an umpire and not a player? And would it really be a good thing if you could?’ Along the way you note, rightly, that what I often say on a Sunday is ‘a philosophical wager’.  

I see that what I’m trying to get at now is that, in this liberal, cosmopolitan, free-thinking church setting, I have a role that need not fall into the binary division of being either a player or an umpire, but one which can simultaneously support (and interpenetrate and inform) the other. 

I think this can be achieved by (in my case) making a (reasonable) philosophical wager on the truth of an ontology of motion (i.e. that motion — material flows, folds and fields — is fundamental and primary) and then articulating what is being described as a performative new-materialism.

The best — by a long, long way — description of the above kind of materialism is found in a newly published paper called ‘What is New Materialism’ by Christopher N. Gamble, Joshua S. Hanan and Thomas Nail (click on  this link to read). 

Their three basic theses of this performative new-materialism are as follows: 

(1) The activity of matter itself must be pedetic, or characterized by indeterminacy, otherwise new materialism will fall back into attributing the activity of matter to something else such as forms, deterministic or probabilistic natural laws, forces, or God.

(2) Matter must be an ongoing iterative process, or else new materialism will fall back into substance-based ontology or risk reducing matter to something else like rationalism or formalism.

(3) Matter must be fully relational and immanently self-caused. Matter is not the merely passive effect of God, nature, or humans. Nor is matter a merely active agent, however. Material relations are always asymmetrical (both active and receptive at once) – not “flat.”

If one is fully material (and in the way understood in the fashion outlined above) then one’s philosophy (wager) is material too and must play out thanks to the same material conditions.

Anyway, a properly articulated performative new-materialism is conversational ‘all the way down’ (up, round &c) or, as Karen Barad terms, it is ‘intra-acting. Here’s the opening to the preface of her book ‘Meeting the Universe Halfway’:

'This book is about entanglements. To be entangled is not simply to be intertwined with another, as in the joining of separate entities, but to lack an independent, self-contained existence. Existence is not an individual affair. Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating. Which is not to say that emergence happens once and for all, as an event or as a process that takes place according to some external measure of space and of time, but rather that time and space, like matter and meaning, come into existence, are iteratively reconfigured through each intra-action, thereby making it impossible to differentiate in any absolute sense between creation and renewal, beginning and returning, continuity and discontinuity, here and there, past and future.'

In my opinion, a philosophical wager on the truth of an ontology of motion and a performative new-materialism should allow one simultaneously to umpire the kind of community that values the kind of radically open-ended conversation Oakeshott speaks about (see either my own piece or the postscript to this blog below to read Oakeshotts description). 

Just to be clear (as I know you know), my own way of talking about this philosophy draws heavily on language used by Lucretius (e.g. HERE), Spinoza (e.g. HERE), and the poet A. R. Ammons (e.g. HERE I'm glad you value the invocation of 'God-or-Nature' which begins our morning service. However, it’s really important to hear me not as attempting to articulate an actual, Spinozistic, deterministic (old-style) naturalism/materialism (as I think you heard last week) but this very different kind of materialism, one which is a pedetic, relational, immanently self-caused, ongoing, iterative process. The task for me in the coming year is to try and make this clearer than I am at present.

A deluded piece of ‘cakeism’? Perhaps . . . 

All the best and very many thanks again for a very helpful and stimulating conversation.



Oakeshotts description of an ongoing and radically open-ended conversation in which ‘the participants’

‘. . . are not engaged in an inquiry or debate; there is no “truth” to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing. Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument. . . . In conversation, “facts” appear only to be resolved once more into the possibilities from which they were made; “certainties” are shown to be combustible, not by being brought in contact with other “certainties” or with doubt, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order; approximations are revealed between notions normally remote from one another. Thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions. Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part. There is no symposiarch or arbiter; not even a doorkeeper to examine credentials. Every entrant is taken at its face-value and everything is permitted which can get itself accepted into the flow of speculation. And voices which speak in conversation do not compose a hierarchy. Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering. Properly speaking, it is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another (‘Rationalism in Politics’, Liberty Fund, Carmel, 1991, pp. 489-490).