Reassembling the monad: the intellectual genealogy of an actant rhizome ontology

Cassells, Christopher John (2019) Reassembling the monad: the intellectual genealogy of an actant rhizome ontology. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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The monad, of which we will speak here, is nothing else than a simple substance, which goes to make up compounds; by simple, we mean without parts. (Leibniz, Monadology)

From its origins in antiquity the monad is a concept that has time and again beguiled and attracted philosophers. This thesis will argue that it is a concept that lives on in the work of Bruno Latour and that it continues to have a contemporary relevance, offering a way out of sterile debates rooted in Cartesian dualism – subject/object, interior/exterior, essence/accident, whole/part, mind/body – and an alternative to those traditions which privilege one side of the dualism over the other – positivism on one hand, postmodernism on the other.

The present study charts the development of the monad through the modern period, beginning with the work of Gottfried Leibniz and, thereafter, its recurrence in the work of Gabriel Tarde, Alfred North Whitehead, and, finally, Bruno Latour. However, rather than simply sketching a chronological history of the monad this study takes as its starting point Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, or to use Latour’s preferred formulation, Actant Rhizome Ontology. Arguing that Latour’s work is best understood as being another instance of a monadological metaphysics that – contra Graham Harman – owes more to Whitehead than Heidegger, to Tarde than Nietzsche, to Leibniz than Spinoza; the thesis traces the genetic intellectual relations between Latour and his three co-monadologists. Latour himself frequently identifies Leibniz, Tarde and Whitehead as intellectual antecedents in his own work; in the spirit of Latour’s own Actor-Network Theory, this thesis takes a closer look at these claimed chains of association.

The first chapter surveys Leibniz’s monadology and argues that, far from being an idealist, Leibniz was committed to a monism that recognized the materiality of simple substance through his corporeal ‘de Volder’ monad. This does not necessarily lead, as argued forcibly Pauline Phemister, to pan-psychism, as Leibniz anticipates William James’ ‘depsychologized’ category of experience with his three level system of bare, soul and spirit monads, where only the spirit monads possess anything resembling a mind; however, it takes Whitehead’s transformation of the monad into the actual entity to complete the break between experience and mind.

The second chapter provides a close reading of Gabriel Tarde’s Monadology & Sociology, a work only made available in English in 2012. Latour has played a significant role in the rediscovery of Tarde, claiming his criminologist compatriot as an intellectual forefather; yet throughout the 20th century Tarde’s work quietly influenced continental philosophy through Giles Deleuze who, despite only ever mentioning Tarde parenthetically, borrows Tarde’s very own formulation for the title of Difference et Repetition. The chapter presents Tarde’s work as being an explosion of the Leibnizian monad where the universe is no longer reflected but literally embodied in each individual entity while at the same time diffused through the universe of monads by virtue of relations of possession. Taken together with his theory of repetition and imitation, his privileging of difference over identity, and his philosophy of having – his ‘echontology’ – Tarde’s monadology provides the foundations for a truly relational ontology; foundations which Latour will retrospectively claim for Actor Network Theory.

The third chapter considers Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme as presented in Process and Reality. Whitehead resolves the ‘audacious fudge’ committed by Leibniz – the doctrine of pre-established harmony – through a complex and sophisticated realist metaphysical system, one held together by ‘creativity’. Whitehead’s categoreal scheme, his peculiar vocabulary, his reiterative method whereby ideas are presented over and over again in different contexts mirror the very metaphysical scheme he describes. This – along with his insistence on the atomic nature of time and the instantaneous emergence and realization of each ‘actual entity’ – lays the basis for Latour’s democratic ontology which, as well as famously according equality between human and non-human actors affords concepts the same ontological status as the thinker in whose mind they have been formed.

The final chapter returns to the work of Latour himself to find the monad reassembled as the ‘actor-network’. Latour’s ontological scheme is discussed in detail with reference to his three antecedents, and his ontology is presented as a reiteration/renewal of the monad; an ontology that itself demands to be renewed each and every time it is deployed. Finally, the thesis argues that Latour pays insufficient heed to Whitehead’s understanding of abstraction with the result that, despite developing the idea himself, Latour fails to fully embrace the ontological reality of the abstract. This in turn leads to his preference for litany over critique and results in a philosophy with a great deal of descriptive power but little or no transformational power. The ‘compositionist’ politics that emerge from Latour’s Actant Rhizome Ontology are ambiguous and utopian, and the thesis concludes by suggesting that more work is required to further Latour’s democratization of the monad, to include its radicalization, in pursuit of a monadology that provides an ontological basis for:

…the genuine resolution of the conflict between man [sic] and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. (Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844)

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Actor-network theory, Bruno Latour, Gabriel Tarde, Gottfried Leibniz, Alfred North Whitehead, process philosophy, Marxism.
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > B Philosophy (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Humanities > Information Studies
Supervisor's Name: Stuart, Dr. Susan
Date of Award: 2019
Depositing User: Christopher Cassells
Unique ID: glathesis:2019-76784
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 03 Mar 2020 16:42
Last Modified: 27 May 2021 09:21
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.76784

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