The End of Materialism and the Civilizational Crisis:
Maria-Teresa Teixeira in Munich
13th International Whitehead Conference 2023
Whitehead and the History of Philosophy Munich, Germany 26.-29. July 2023
Alfred North Whitehead developed his process philosophy with an explicit reliance on the value of the history of philosophy. While the trend of recent years has often suggested that different approaches to philosophical problems can be adequately categorized, using the dichotomy of purely systematic or purely historical interests, Whitehead offers an equally historically informed and systematically intended perspective.
For playlist for all the talks at the conference, click here.
Maria-Teresa Teixeira holds a PhD in contemporary philosophy from Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa. She is the author of two books, on Whitehead (»Ser, Devir e Perecer A criatividade na filosofia de Whitehead«), and on Bergson (»Consciência e Acção Bergson e as neurociências«). She has translated »Process and Reality« by A. N. Whitehead into Portuguese. She has also published many papers in international journals. She serves as the International Process Network director elect; and she is the organizer of the 2017 International Whitehead Conference.
The End of Materialism and the Civilizational Crisis: A Call for Holistic Perception and Intuitive Understanding
In her Munich lecture titled "The End of Materialism and the Civilizational Crisis," Maria-Teresa Teixeira argues that the crisis facing our civilization is deeply entrenched in a problematic and deluded way of "perceiving" the world. She refers to this mindset as "materialism."
According to Teixeira, the act of "perceiving" extends beyond a set of ideas constituting a worldview. It also includes our sensory interactions with the surrounding environment—how we see, touch, hear, and otherwise engage not only with our immediate surroundings but also with other people and the broader, more-than-human world. This expansive concept of perceiving also reaches into how we remember the past and anticipate the future. Her use of the term aligns closely with what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead describes as "prehending."
Teixeira contends that the present civilizational crisis is, at its core, also an ecological crisis. The crisis unfolds in the widespread degradation of natural ecosystems, the global eradication of indigenous cultures, the dissolution of local communities, and our harmful interactions with each other and the planet. If "materialism" is to end, a post-materialist way of perceiving needs to emerge. Toward this end, Whitehead and Bergson can help.
In the course of her lecture, she identifies many key traits of a materialist way of perceiving:
Reduction of the World to a "Resource": Materialism reduces Earth and its intricate web of life—including humans—to mere objects for exploitation.
Separation from the Larger Web of Life: Materialism falsely isolates humans from the larger ecosystem, creating a damaging divide between humans and the more-than-human world, such as animals, plants, and natural phenomena.
Seeing the Human Mind as a Detached Spectator: Materialism cultivates the illusion that the human mind is an objective observer that dissects the world purely for analysis and utility.
Overemphasis on Analytical Reasoning: Materialism tends to rely on analytical methodologies, undermining holistic intuition as a credible means of understanding.
Underestimation of Self-Creativity and Novelty: Adhering to what Henri Bergson termed "the logic of solidity," materialism disregards the intrinsic dynamism and self-creative capabilities in all entities.
Ignoring Relational Interconnectedness: Materialism rejects the notion that entities are interconnected, evolving in relation to one another rather than in isolation.
Reducing Knowledge or Wisdom to Bits of Information: Materialism narrows wisdom down to analytical thinking and fragments reality into isolated sensory impressions, which are then reduced to "information" gathered by search engines.
Neglect of the Processual Nature of Reality: Materialism aims to "fix" things mentally, ignoring that these "things" are actually processes or activities continually in flux.
Ignoring the dynamism of a living past: Materialism presents past events as inert objects, lacking vitality of their own.
These various traits, taken together, form a single and unified way of thinking about and perceiving the world characteristic of Western modernity. Teixeira believes that this way of thinking and perceiving is at the heart of our current civilizational crisis. Here she is reminiscent of Whitehead, who labels this interconnected set of traits as "scientific materialism" and links it with the "bifurcation of nature"—a divisive separation of the natural world into human "subjects" with thoughts, feelings, aims and purposes and natural "objects" devoid of vitality, agency, value, and purpose.
Teixeira's lecture is quite philosophical in tone. Grounded in the philosophies of Whitehead and Bergson, it becomes delightfully technical at times. Listeners may encounter unfamiliar terms, such as Bergson's concept of "duration." Nevertheless, her talk serves as an urgent call for reclaiming our inherent capacities for holistic perception and intuitive understanding.
The wide-ranging implications of Teixeira's philosophically grounded ideas span various sectors of society, offering transformative potential. She does not explore them in the lecture (time did not allow) but they are worth mentioning to note that her ideas can indeed make a difference. For example, in education, we can consider expanding beyond rote learning to integrate experiential methods such as travel, cultural exchanges, and natural immersion. Media and storytelling can serve as potent tools to enhance understanding and bridge cultural divides. All of these can remind us that "value" is not merely something we ascribe to the world; it is part of the very world we encounter.
Similarly, Teixeira's ideas invite a reimagining of several professional fields. In medicine, practitioners could adopt holistic methods that blend Western and alternative therapies, focusing on complete well-being rather than just symptom treatment. Legal frameworks could evolve to recognize both individual and collective environmental rights, acknowledging our interconnectedness with the broader ecosystem. In the financial sector, business models aiming for a triple bottom line—profit, people, and planet—could become the norm. Educational curricula might also be redesigned to promote critical thinking, empathy, and a deeper connection to the natural world.
Teixeira's perspectives also offer avenues for reclaiming healthier forms of religion and spirituality. For instance, holistic traditions like Buddhism could serve as templates for broader spiritual dialogue, offering entry points for introducing these ideas into more rigid religious settings. Buddhism in particular seems "process" and "relational" in just the way she imagines.
Finally, and returning to the world of professions, engineering disciplines could benefit from a more holistic approach. These disciplines are, after all, precisely where a molding of the world for human purposes, neglectful of the intrinsic value of the materials molded, is so tempting. To counter this temptation, civil engineers can plan cities that exist in symbiosis with nature rather than in opposition to it. Chemical engineers can look to natural processes for inspiration, creating more sustainable materials. Mechanical engineers can design machines that harmonize with, rather than disrupt, natural ecosystems. In software engineering, even algorithms and artificial intelligence can be developed based on ethical and holistic principles. All of these would be post-materialistic. All could emerge from the assumption that we live in a world where subject and objects are inseparable, that humans are part of the larger web of life, and that our task, as humans, is to live lightly on the Earth and gently with one one another, for the common good of people and the planet. These varied implications will remain fragmented unless accompanied by a broader change in worldview—a post-materialist perspective, as Teixeira outlines. In fact this post-materialistic perspective is also, in its way, ancient and wise. Indigenous peoples the world over have seen the world as an organic and holistic process, filled with living beings that are agents in themselves, with communities of their own. The world can be used, but used with respect, not with an impulse to dominate the whole. Given the urgency of global challenges like climate change, social inequality, and biodiversity loss, this transformative shift, back to the past and into the future, isn't merely a beneficial alternative; it's a necessity if the human adventure is to continue.
The Concept of Duration in the Philosophy of Henri Bergson
In the philosophy of Henri Bergson, the concept of "duration" (or "durée" in French) is a central idea that radically departs from traditional understandings of time and space. Duration, for Bergson, is an indivisible, continuous flow of becoming. It's not something that can be measured by clocks or divided into uniform units like minutes or seconds. Instead, it must be intuitively grasped as the inner qualitative experience of time, as opposed to the quantitative, measured time that science and everyday practical activity usually rely on. Differentiating Between "Time" and "Duration"
Bergson distinguishes between "mathematical time," which is spatialized, measurable, and divisible, and "lived time" or "psychological time," which is indivisible, heterogeneous, and qualitative. Mathematical time is what we usually rely on when we schedule appointments or look at a calendar. It treats time much like space—something external that can be divided into units.
Duration, in contrast, is internal and subjective. It's the continuous flow of conscious experience, where past, present, and future interpenetrate. In "lived time," each moment is unique and cannot be exactly replicated, nor can it be separated from the moments that come before or after it.
Intuition Over Intellect
Bergson argues that duration can only be understood through intuition, a direct, non-analytical engagement with experience. Traditional intellectual methods dissect time into units for easier analysis and utility, but in doing so, they distort the lived experience of duration.
Implications for Understanding Reality
Bergson's concept of duration has broad implications, affecting our understanding of memory, freedom, and even the nature of reality itself. For Bergson, memory is not a separate faculty but is integral to consciousness, and it exists in duration. Similarly, free will is only possible within the sphere of duration. Our choices are not predetermined by external factors but are made in the continuous flow of lived experience. Duration is also tied to Bergson's idea of "élan vital," or "life force," which he sees as the creative impulse driving the evolution of life. In this view, every living being is engaged in a process of becoming, within the flow of duration.