In Defense of Wonder: A response to Naught Thought on Whitehead’s Philosophy of Dawn

I cannot, without much hesitation, identify myself as either a “prickly” or a “gooey” philosopher. It depends on who my interlocutors are. If I am in a philosophical conversation with, say, a professional biochemist with a reductionistic orientation, my attempt to wipe away and retrace the horizons of their world will inevitably come off as vague, pretentious, and mystical. If I enter into discussion with a musician or poet, my need to reflect upon and conceptualize the beats and flows of lived experience will probably upset their vibe.

Naught Thought/Ben Woodard recently posted about the “rhetorical disadvantages” of process philosophy resulting from its habit of embracing “ontological fuzziness.” He does nonetheless ally himself with the process perspective, speaking approvingly of Grant’s and Meillassoux’s philosophies of becoming by defending them from Harman’s worry about the “mining” of objects. The point of Woodward’s post, it seems to me, is to encourage the process wing of Speculative Realism to tidy up and formalize its rhetorical style:

“Too many thinkers who work with becoming or process are okay with operating in the twilight of becoming…this allows for becoming to be utilized as an escape hatch in argumentation.”

I definitely appreciate any call to clarify my philosophical position. While I guess I am one of the “process-relational folks” (Woodard’s phrase), in the sense that I have participated in some PR blogalogues recently, I probably wouldn’t employ the phrase to describe myself. Whitehead is one of my most significant philosophical influences at this point in my short philosophical career, but I don’t think the term “process-relational” quiet works for him, either. If pressed, I’d be more likely to describe myself as a Christian Hermeticist. I’m all about “process,” but my heart and mind lead me to affirm that the cosmic process is evolutionary in the teleogenic sense. On a purely metaphysical level, I agree that hyper-chaos/creativity reigns; but on a cosmological level, God’s Love guides physical processes toward an increasingly intense harmonization of aesthetic contrasts, which is Whitehead-speak for Beauty.

Whitehead, like James, is a metaphysician of experience as much as process. Granted, he holds that, ontologically, only becoming is real; but physically, which is to say experientially, becoming is atomized. As James’ put it, experiential reality is both “substantive,” consisting of discrete and unified buds, and “transitive,” with buds flowing out of and into one another as a continuous stream. James suggested that the transitive phase of experience unfolds on the “fringe” of consciousness; it is made conscious only in non-ordinary situations (like that generated by nitrous oxide, in James’ case), and then only with great difficulty. Consciousness of the flow between buds is difficult because, as soon as consciousness attends to the multitude of feelings unfolding on the edges of experience, it transforms them into a unified drop of experience with a new center of subjective identity withdrawn from a new circumference of mostly occluded processes. But still, these flows are only mostly occluded, and many of our commonsense beliefs about the world depend upon our taking for granted that true relation is possible, that each discrete moment of private consciousness is causally bound up (and so continuous) with public processes.

I disagree with Woodard that process philosophy, at least that of the Whiteheadian variety, does violence to commonsense. On the contrary, Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme is an attempt to cosmologize the commonsensical ethical arguments of David Hume. Whitehead’s Jamesian inheritance leads him to elevate experiential adequacy to the very top of his philosophical priority list. His is a scientifically informed plea for re-enchantment, a spirited defense of human freedom and creativity against the radically non-commonsensical reductionisms of mechanistic materialism.

The more I begin to grasp Meillassoux’s process approach the more strikingly similar it becomes to Whitehead’s. The only major difference (and I still have to read The Divine Inexistence for myself) seems to me to be that Meillassoux focuses almost exclusively on (at least the future possibility of) the consequent pole of God’s experience, denying any primordial element. There is no reason at all for the way the universe is, despite its aesthetic beauty and mathematical intelligibility, and there would be no reason at all if a God capable of world redemption were one day to emerge. Whitehead, on the other hand, adheres to the Principle of Sufficient Reason. He does so without separating thinking and feeling such that the intellect is forced to disenchant and mechanize the cosmos in spite of the heart’s protests. God, the eminent actuality and chief exemplar of Whitehead’s occasionalist ontology, is the dipolar embodiment of Reason; that which is responsible for experiencing both Reason’s eternal potentiality and its temporal actualization. Creativity remains Whitehead’s ultimate category, but absent God’s valuation and enjoyment, there can be no Cosmos. It is not a given that there is a Cosmos, but if we aspire to bring forth order and harmony in the world (i.e., if we aspire to cosmologize), then we do so under the assumption that a World Soul exists beyond our own soul to hold it all together.

Whitehead has been called a “philosopher for the muddleheaded,” and there is no doubt that he is an eccentric and complicated thinker. But I don’t think this implies that those philosophers (like myself) who share his attitude toward the real are necessarily at a rhetorical disadvantage. It all depends how one construes the end of philosophy. Some think philosophy, while it may begin in wonder, should end in precise understanding. This is not how Whitehead judges the success or failure of speculative metaphysics. For him, metaphysics should begin and end in wonder.

Bertrand Russell, about as prickly a philosopher as they come, recalls that Whitehead once remarked to him that:

“You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon day; I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first wakes from deep sleep.”

Woodard’s comment about the “twilight of becoming” certainly seems accurate given this candid statement by Whitehead himself. I see his “philosophy of dawn,” not as a liability, but as perhaps his most important attitudinal contribution to intellectual culture. Unlike Woodard, I think metaphysical speculation is necessarily affective and existential. Philosophy must be involved  in the ethical complexities of everyday life among others, since it is only in response to these complexities that thinking emerges at all. If affect and ethics are not properly “metaphysical” topics, then I say to hell with metaphysics.

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6 thoughts on “In Defense of Wonder: A response to Naught Thought on Whitehead’s Philosophy of Dawn

  1. I think that this whole exercise is most helpful, not to synthesize some new and improved super-standard of thought/practice, but to get a sense of where folks are coming from as this often gets covered up in using terms that seem to be held in common but are bearing many differing loads. For instance from my atheist naturalist stance cosmologizing Humean ethics is too be aspect-blind to the differences at hand in Humean common-sense ethics and in the cosmological, but also an understanding that there is no logic/example/formula/synthesis that will bring our disparate intuitions/callings/orientations together, and that if someone should create a new living metaphor that would appeal to both of us neither of us would still be in our old frameworks. I think as readers we can all be helpful in continuing to ask for clarifications of terms/perspectives without expecting to convert anyone (but that may be my correlationalist neo-pragmatism speaking).

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