More on Myth, Panentheism, and Participation…

Levi Bryant has posted a few more reflections on myth. I’ve pasted some of our discussion over on Larval Subjects below. Bryant also recently posted on what he calls “a-theism,” and I’m more inclined to follow him at least part way in what he suggests. I have a few caveats, however. I do interpret the Christ event (he calls it the Jesus event) as a transformational turning point in the myth of transcendence that structured monotheism in prior ages. I am not a theist (which Bryant defines as a form of the myth of transcendence, wherein an entity is imagined “that is unconditioned and that conditions other things without itself being conditioned by other things”); rather, I am a panentheist. God is immanent in all things. All things participate in divine transcendence. Such a transcendence within all things is my way of affirming the OOO postulate of withdrawal. The keystone concept in Christianity, that which makes it panentheistic in structure, is the incarnation, which I have unpacked in relation to speculative metaphysics herehere, and here. I would also want to challenge Bryant’s caricature of Plato. The notion of participation (methexis) is central to Platonic thought. Any simplistic account of Platonic forms merely in terms of their transcendence has failed to wrestle with this admittedly difficult concept, and unfortunately, has completely missed the boat (the boat that Plato labored to construct to carry transcendence into immanence, eternity into time). I’d direct interested readers to chapter 1 of The Participatory Turn (SUNY, 2008), “A Genealogy of Participation” by Jacob Sherman, especially pages 81-87.


Levi, Your definition seems to imply that the ancient Greek gods, for example, were not mythic in structure (they were not transcendent, they were finite in power and in virtue). What were they, then?

I’d argue that the concepts of transcendence and monotheism were invented relatively recently (around the axial period), while myth, especially in its more ritualistically embedded and mimetic forms, has been structuring human experience for tens of thousands of years.

Matthew, As I’ve already remarked to you in discussion, I think your definition of myth is overly broad and fuzzy. You treat narrative and myth as synonyms, which they aren’t. As for greek gods, in my readings of classical texts they’re regularly treated as eternal and we get the stories of origins and falls I describe throughout Greek and Roman literature. I always get suspicious when people refer to the “axial age”, but I’ll set that aside.

Levi, your definition in terms of mythic structure, rather than content, is helpful. Any definition of myth will be “fuzzy,” however, since mythic forms of consciousness are indeed dream-like and can only be falsified by the “clear and distinct ideas” of mental-rational definitions. I come from a school of thought (Gebser, Jung, and more recently, Bellah) in which myth is to be grasped on its own terms, more akin to poetry and story, rather than collapsed into the theoretical terms of rationality.

I think an important distinction can be made between the immortality of Greek gods and the eternality of a transcendent God. The former does not imply transcendence of the emotional tumult of human-like existence, while the latter does imply a great distance, absolute or not, from such confusion.

As for the Axial age, it has survived Jaspers’ initial formulation quite well and remains a key concept for many sociologists and scholars of religion. You might look into Robert Bellah‘s “Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age” (2011).

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35 thoughts on “More on Myth, Panentheism, and Participation…

  1. The theory of participation doesn’t get Plato off the hook. The problem is that the forms can affect creatures without creatures affecting the forms. Creatures participate in the forms but not vice versa. The forms remain eternally impassive, determining without being determined by anything else. Any theory that has that structure is a no go for me. Likewise with Christianity. If you retain the trinity and still have God the father you’re still in transcendence. It’s only where God literally becomes man and there’s no resurrection that that structure is undone. Nearly the entire history of Christianity has rejected that move and thus remains mired in belief in an unconditioned. At the ethical and political level, I see all variants of transcedence as I’ve outlined the term (not Jason’s usage) denigrate and devalue the world. I also believe they lead to a very lethal logic of persecution which I outlined in one of the first posts on my blog and that are the topic of anarticle that should come out next year.

    • Levi, Plato is often oversimplified, and let me be the first to admit that much of his thought was not adequately fleshed out, so to speak, in the surviving dialogues. The sympathetic thinker has to fill in the blanks for him. This is what Whitehead tries to do.
      Whitehead’s God is a creature, and as a creature, values some formal possibilities over others. Without this divine valuation, the forms would exist in an undifferentiated (or perhaps infinitely differentiating) creative flux. So in Whitehead’s reformed Platonism, creatures do affect the forms. In the case of finite creatures, their affect on the forms is not direct, but mediated through God’s consequent nature.
      There is some abiguity in Plato in regard to the eternality of the forms. I believe it is in Laws or the Epinomis that Plato writes of the forms being either eternal or so old as to seem eternal to mortal eyes. This suggests to me that there is room when thinking with Plato for the kind of slow cosmic evolution of forms mentioned by Jason below.
      I am in complete agreement with you in regard to the history of Christianity. The religion of Jesus has been all but forgotten, replaced by what became the religion of Rome (or empire, generally). It’s my belief that the ethical teachings of Jesus, and the metaphysical significance of the Christ event, have only just begun to seep into human consciousness and sociality.

      • …a conversation you and I have had before, Matt. If the participation goes both ways in Whitehead which I agree that — at least in principal — is what Whitehead argues, why then still use the clunky term “eternal objects.” Why not “enduring objects”? And I still don’t see why the relation between creatures and forms must be mediated by Whitehead’s God, perhaps another poor word choice to describe what he is getting at?

      • I think Whitehead named them “eternal objects” because “enduring objects” sounds too much like his definition of organisms. An eternal object is a potentiality that only becomes actual as a relationship, when it is participated by actual occasions. Otherwise it is a pure potentiality, deficient in actuality, that has not been enjoyed by any actual occasion, whether divine or finite. Creatures and eternal objects are mediated by God (occationalism), but God is also in all actual occasions. It is the participation of God in all things that preserves their difference, their withdrawnness from relations.

        As for word choice, we could play the nominalism game and make up new words to please other audiences. But I get nervous when we start making up words for pragmatic reasons. If yours is more of a poetic reason, then that’s another story. I do think it is important to preserve Whitehead’s conceptual distinctions, however, even if we end up employing more pleasing words to express them.

      • Eternal objects are something I’m going to have to keep thinking about. However, my issue is not poetic or pragmatic but of adequacy. If he were still alive, I would have a whole list of words of his that I’d want to talk about (eternal objects, satisfaction, God, enjoyment, appetition, “adventure of ideas”). Its not that I think we could use any words to describe any set of ideas, or that I think that the ideas the words refer to are bads ones, but more that I think the words he chooses are blind to certain aspects of what he is describing — a lot of the word choices are just too bright to capture some of the darkness in the universe for my liking, and in that respect seem inadequate and a bit one sided.

      • “Philosophers can never hope finally to formulate [their] metaphysical first principles. Weakness of insight and deficiencies of language stand in the way inexorably” (Process and Reality, p. 4).

        Were he alive, I imagine he would agree with you that better terms may be needed.

      • “Enduring” implies temporality; pure possibility (Peirce’s term) is not temporal. To be is to change and to be related. Not all of reality is.

      • So Whitehead scribbled his footnotes to Leibniz on windowless monads, but we have the monad from the Hermetica via Ficino, translating Plato from Greek sources that are lost to us! A problem in language, indeed. I’m sure we miss the pragmatics of Greek participation in a world naïve to meta-language, yet on the verge of communion.

  2. Levi,

    Keep in mind a common interpretation of the kind of causality that forms have. It’s erotic causality, not efficient. Material things desire eternity, and any material thing gains its formal qualities per its desire for a form, while the form remains unmoved. Now, do you so strongly object to understanding this one-way causality? I suspect that the answer is yes.

    The reality of quality works similar to this way. To halt the infinite regress of nominalism, we select process-thinkers argue that universals are real but non-existent, and they become instantiated through particular interactions. The “universals” in this sense can be understood as principles of unity that are on the border of the intelligible (=generic or specific unity), and any determinate existence invokes a specific unity that we may categorize as one of these universals. This approach solves the logical problem, although it is counter-intuitive.

    Let us tweak the strict Plato model a little more. What if the forms slowly evolve over cosmic time-scales? Then we get much closer to the standard process-metaphysical view of the “laws of nature” that govern the interaction of things such that they come into unity.

    • The idea of forms evolving slowly over time is closer to my own view, though at this point I would no longer use terms like “form” or “eternal object” because they’re not eternal or transcendent. Increasingly this seems to be where physics is leading us; to the view that things like gravity are not laws of nature, but are the result of how our particular universe cooled following the big bang. Under this model, you get different scales of duration nested in one another like Russian dolls. There are very slow moving durations that persist for billions of years like gravity, and then more brief patterns like the life of a fly, a society, or a human being.

  3. I have just posted a longer version my my musings on my blog.


    The words you are looking for a “invulnerability” vs. “eternity” in your comparison of the Greek gods and the Christian god. Anything in time can change. Recall Plato’s Parmenides on this point, where there is a sense in which time is equivalent to change (synonymous but non-identical). Zeus is invulnerable, but he does change. God is neither vulnerable nor changing insomuch as God is “transcendent” per eternal, because God is then outside of time (change). As you note, a temporal God can change. However, panentheism along is not temporality. Recent process theism directly combats Levi’s charge, and you should invoke it. But then, you lose the idempotent eternity of God, and God becomes a fellow-sufferer.

    • I agreed with much of Levi’s post on a-theism because I do think the divine, as Jesus, suffers with creatures as a creature (such is the definition of compassion). I don’t think religion can be efficacious today unless this sort of incarnationalism is at work. The myth of a transcendent, unaffected divinity doesn’t seem viable in our age…

  4. “Prime mover” – Aristotle

    “Explanation comes to an end somewhere” – Wittgenstein

    Anybody who can come up with a serious theory about how we “affect” the color red is welcome to offer it. I’ve never heard any such theory in my entire life and I’m sure I won’t be seeing any good ones here. But fire away!

    I sense a failure to transcend postmodernity here. Which is too bad.

  5. Matt has given a good summary of the eternal objects.

    The eternal objects are real but do not exist. The difficulty many have is trying to think something that is real but does not exist. Hallucinations are real but do not exist as such. Likewise, the eternal objects are real, but exist through others. Matt has explained this, and the whole issue is to combat nominalism. The objects are not “transcendent” in any conventional means, and if Levi wishes to push it, then I’d like to see onticology explain the reality of mathematics–you’ll quickly discover that intuitive explanations are not sufficient.

    Keep in mind that to hold a process-view while holding nominalism is to back-pedal into mysticism.

  6. Philosophyprime,

    Your first few statements mischaracterize the theory. Moreover, reasoning from lack of knowledge will not be helpful in this task.

    American philosophy predates and eschews both modernity and post-modernity.

    • I wasn’t attempting to “characterize” anything of the sort. I was simply attempting to show that the idea of prime movers is not only not new but is in fact tacit or even explicit in serious philosophy of all eras. Recall that the original blog post here was a response to someone who defined “mythology” in terms of positing prime movers. They didn’t use that term, but it amounts to the same thing in ‘structure’.

      As for “postmodernity”, I was referring to the comment section here which became filled with postmodern-type garble …ie pure nominalism or people attempting to claim there is no absolute grounding for truth. You can only understand my comment in the context of the entire entry and comments here, not as isolated statements. I actually agree with your position on Whitehead. I side largely with you and the author of this blog in this discussion at least as regards the combat of pure nominalism.

      So it seems you just misunderstood my cryptic comment. I agree with your position on nominalism qua Whitehead.

      Think about the experience of the color red, too. Is not the ‘red potential’ of the milieu of “eternal objects”? It is always ‘real’ but is not always ‘actual’. Don’t know what else I can say here, peace.

      • Apologies, Prime.

        Having extricated my head from my rear, somewhat ….

        Yes, concerning your red example, that is the point of everything I’ve been writing in the last week. Without realism, “red potential” doesn’t mean anything in particular. When combined with process, metaphysics, where we cannot even pin down autonomous substance, it’s laughable. I have written much on my blog concerning this, , in part to differentiate the view from … Locke … because some take it as being no more than that.

  7. Jason,

    I don’t see nominalism as a bad thing or as a thing to be combated. For me there’s just process without end and without any originary point or foundation. For me, unities and forms are results or products, not originary foundations. That, said, I will concede that mathematics is difficult to account for in any naturalist ontology. I just saw your response to my queries over at your blog last night (for some reason it never appeared at LS). I don’t think your argument from knowledge does the trick. Claiming that because something is required for knowledge it must exist or be real doesn’t work for me, because this suggests to me that we should revise our understanding of knowledge, not that we should expand our ontology. Following Adam, I still don’t see an argument here for eternal objects, beyond the fact that Whitehead or Peirce asserts them (an argument from authority). I like my ontologies lean and mean. That is, if we can get by without asserting the existence of certain entities then we should. I’m not sure what to do with the idea of something that is real without existing. For me if something is real it has to exist. Have you read DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy? His account of morphogenesis is basically what I’m defending when Inclaim that form and quality is a product, a result, not a ground. Through DeLanda/Deleuze we get an account of what Whitehead is trying to think throug at the level of satisfaction and form without having to postulate things like ingression or eternal objects. Take the example of a soap bubble (one of DeLanda’s favorite examples). The soap bubble has its spherical shape not because an eternal object, sphericity, ingresses into the soap molecules and these molecules strive towards a “satisfaction. Rather, the sphericity of the soap bubble results from a minimization of surface tension that produces this particular form or shape. Many objects share this form not because they all participate in the same eternal object (sphericity), but because they all undergo the same material process in minimizing surface tension. This explains what Plato and Whitehead wish to explain at a purely material level without having to postulate ingression or eternal objects. What we have in Delanda/Deleuze is a genetic account of these things rather than one based on transcedent conditioning. I think that’s a substantial advance.

    Matt, you’re talking about Whitehead’s reworking of Plato rather than Plato himself. I think Whitehead’s discussion of Plato is quite a transformation of his thought.

    • Levi,

      I think you missed the key thrust of the argument. A process metaphysic cannot be nominalist without destroying the concept of identity. Substance metaphysics takes identity as a foundation, but also equates identity with foundation, i.e., substance. Process metaphysics cannot do that as time becomess an equiprimordial concept.

      I never said that unities and forms are “originary foundations.” The problem is not one of grounding, but identity. If everything is process, then what is identity? If we chose nominalism, then we get the cosmic goop that Harman goes on about.

      I am not making an argument from knowledge. I am making an ontological argument that assumes that identity is real and ask how that may be so. If you like your ontologies lean, then you should grant that ontologies of quite different bases might have different fundamental assumptions, and thus comparing select process theories to yours amounts to little by way of critique.

      In your soap bubble example, you invoke the problem of regress that I have already mentioned. If “sphericity” is a “minimization of surface tension” that produces “this particular form or shape,” then you have either argued in a circle or not addressed the question. You trade the word “sphere” for “this form or shape produced in this way” without further referent. Now tell me, what is being minimized? Will you not hae to perform this same move of deferrence again? Infinitely? The answer is yes, as stated. See? No argument from authority–which is not a kind thing to say.

      The problem, Levi, is that you refuse to think of universals as something other than transcendent, which is not what they are. If I recall correctly, you are a materialist, in which case anything not material looks transcendent to you, though it is not. Moreover, I already stated that this was not a form of one-way causation.

      In sum, I have responded briefly to all your claims, and far more material is on my site. I think your disagreement is a combination of fundamentally opposed views veiled as internal criticisms and other issues. If you do not agree with the presuppositions, then you should start there and perhaps end there, “I don’t buy the rest of what you say because we don’t need realism,” which is a respectable thing to do. Otherwise, my responses are pointless if you side-step the presuppositions from which they come.

      • Jason,

        You write:

        I think you missed the key thrust of the argument. A process metaphysic cannot be nominalist without destroying the concept of identity. Substance metaphysics takes identity as a foundation, but also equates identity with foundation, i.e., substance. Process metaphysics cannot do that as time becomess an equiprimordial concept.

        This is certainly an assertion, but I don’t see an argument here. I’ve written quite a bit on identity. As I understand it within my process-oriented framework, identity is not a given, but rather an activity on the part of an entity. I generally couch these discussions in terms of entropy. Every entity faces the problem of entropy or dissolution as it endures through time. As such, every entity must reproduce itself from moment to moment or dissolve. Here I’m deeply sympathetic to Whitehead’s understanding of temporal process, though I tend to draw more heavily on Deleuze and Derrida to make these arguments.

        I am, of course, aware that there are ontologies that have quite different bases and principles. We’re arguing about those things and whether they’re warranted or necessary. My ontological framework only acknowledges the existence and reality of individuals. I’m perplexed by your remarks about my soap bubble example. First, I do directly say what’s minimized: surface tension. Given these types of molecules and relations between them, sphericity is the only shape that can be produced. The shape is a result of the process. Think of the issue by analogy with cooking. There isn’t some essence or universal of a meal that ingresses into the dish. Rather, if you use these ingredients and follow these rules you get more or less this result. Likewise in the case of mathematics. Follow these rules, you get these results. Why do we need something more than this? And here I just don’t understand what you’re getting at with the the issue of referents. Moreover, I don’t see what’s so noxious about infinite regresses when we’re talking about metaphysics. As Kant noted in his second antinomy, we can just as reasonably make the argument that the universe is infinite in time or that it has no beginning.

        Finally, I’m unclear as to why you’re barking at me in your last two paragraphs here. We have a metaphysical difference. My realism holds that only individuals exist and that there are no universals. Your realism holds that there are universals. There’s no need for that difference to generate ire… Or maybe I’m just misreading your tone.

      • Levi,

        You give more arguments, and maybe I will give some more. I prefer not to reproduce the entirety of my blog content, or my dissertation, just as I do not expect you to rehash your book.

        A point of clarification. I am not claiming that you are holding a process metaphysic, and thus my comments are meant to be explanatory for myself and Matt—note we are posting on his blog. I mention this again at the end of this.

        What is an “entity,” Levi, such that you can speak of identity? To discern an entity is at least in principle to speak of an identity, or something that has an identity even if you know not what it is. You invoke the axiom of choice (cf set theoretic axiom) in a setting where it’s not obvious that you can. We pure process folks absolutely cannot do that, and that is a difference between us. In a conventional process metaphysic, we have to be very careful about invoking that axiom.

        Concerning the sphericity example. If you cannot establish what is or is not a “sphere” independently of the procedure, then none of your explanation works without additional qualification. You give something almost procedural, but as we know, procedures must have content, and I have performed a reductio ad infinitum on what you propose. E.g., is tension a relation of two relateds? Yes. Now, describe what categories of relateds for which this holds true. I will repeat the question, and if we are in a process metaphysics of relativity and nominalism, there is no natural stopping point. In your hybrid metaphysics, you may invoke an object. Now tell me how any such invocation is not ad hoc. I think there might be a way out of this, but I haven’t seen it yet, and I’m not sure I would accept the consequences, though you might. In Whitehead, we do eventually get to fundamental principles under such a regress—God being one of them.

        What is obnoxious about infinite regresses? Nothing per se. However, if the regress, as it does in the case of sphericity, leaves you unable to explain what sphericity is, then we have a problem. I do not see how nominalism is compatible with substance-realism, unless you give up the principle of sufficient reason of something like that.

        As for barking and tone, you are misreading me. As I said above, I meant my responses to be explanatory of a Peirce/Whiteheadian process position so that you’d understand why Matt is saying the things that he does. A side note: I’m trying hard to stay out of various blog posts that certainly are barking.

      • Jason,

        First, how are you using the term “realism”? Are you using it in the scholastic sense that asserts the existence of universals? When those of in the SR crew use the term we are not referring to this but employ the term to mean that beings exist independent of the mind and are not dependent on humans. As for your remark about me and process-metaphysics, I consider my ontology a process-ontology. It’s just not identical to the process-ontologies of Whitehead and Peirce, that’s all.

        I’m not sure where I evoked the axiom of choice or referred to set theory. As I remarked in my previous post, I consider the identity of an entity something that an entity must produce, not something that an entity is. Take your personal identity. This is something that must be produced from moment to moment by retaining a past and anticipating a future. It is not a given feature of your being but an activity or something that you do. This is a very basic principle of all process ontologies I’m familiar with, including Whitehead’s. For example, it’s at the core of what he’s discussing when he talks about subsequent actual occasions prehend past actual occasions or phases in a society of occasions. The identity is the result of this temporal process and activity, not the ground or something that precedes that activity.

        You write:

        Concerning the sphericity example. If you cannot establish what is or is not a “sphere” independently of the procedure, then none of your explanation works without additional qualification.

        This and the subsequent lines in the paragraph are a good example of why I argued that you were making an epistemological/correlationist argument, not an ontological argument. How spheres come-to-be and whether spherical things exist has nothing to do with our ability to identify with them. Spheres and the processes by which spheres are produced are independent of us. Treating this as an issue of whether we can identify them subordinates the being of things to our epistemological requirements. Following philosopher of science Roy Bhaskar, I refer to this as the “epistemic fallacy”, and devote the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects to discussing this fallacy (you can also find a variant of this argument in the two introductions to onticology in the sidebar of my blog). The ontological question is whether the being of spheres themselves requires anything additional like pure possibilities (Peirce) or eternal objects (Whitehead) in order to exist. I don’t think they do and gave a highly abbreviated account of how spheres come to exist through material-causal processes alone.

        Now please don’t misunderstand me. You’re quite right that to investigate anything we must be able to identify it, but that’s a distinct issue. The account of this belongs to a theory of inquiry and/or epistemology. But even here I don’t see why we need to evoke anything like pure possibilities or eternal objects to account for these identifications. All we need is a naturalistic cognitive account of how we recognize resemblances between things so as to identify similar patterns. The virtue of this naturalistic account is that it recognizes that we often go wrong in these identifications and is able to account for why we often go wrong.

      • Levi,

        Recently, across multiple blogs including here, I have specified scholastic realism, so yes.

        Concerning identity. If an identity is what “an entity must produce, not something that an entity is,” then we are in agreement in our views. However, is an activity or production not an identity? That is, is not production some-thing rather than any- or no-thing? This is not a point of contest between us, unless you mean more than a mere shifting of what can be said to have identity. A strict Aristotelian view would not allow activity (potency) to have identity as it must inhere in a substance from which it gains derivative (necessarily non-independent) identity. In conclusion, I never said that identity is a ground or precedence. I am saying that existence has determinate structure, even if dynamic and temporal, and determinacy comes with identity. It’s just not your classic substantial determinacy.

        Concerning your last point on inquiry. The reason to hold a neo-scholastic realism is to avoid psychologism. You seem to be arguing for psychologism, and thus have a respectable position. However, that cannot be compatible with anything other than that kind of realism that posits more than one’s own individual mind exists. There’s usually much more tacked onto the term “realism” than that. You seem to want your cake and to eat it too, and thus I presume that the failure is mine to see what premise you hold that accounts for the discrepancy. E.g., holding psychologism, realism, and nominalism with a substance-like metaphysics … I just presume that you are not holding all those premises, but am having a hard time divining the details.

        Concerning spheres. Correct, how they come to be has nothing to do with our identification of them, and thus I have written several times that we should set aside the epistemic considerations. However, you run into a fundamental problem. If you cannot speak of identities in any way—if you push the being vs. knowledge of being argument too far—then you admit that you have no idea whether anything you say is true.

        The word “sphere” that you write now no longer has content, i.e., no sense, reference, or anything, and this is why nominalists cannot do metaphysics.

        You admit to performing metaphysics, and thus you must give us another criterion for why you are doing metaphysics, e.g., logical adequacy, amelioration, or explain how I misunderstand, etc. However, if you push that being vs knowing too far, your abductive hypothesis will not win out against the other, more explanatory abductive hypotheses. All us speculative metaphysicians, myself included, have this problem.

        Last point. Pure possibilities are not invoked in knowledge claims, unlike what you write. They are invoked to support realism and a non-representational theory of knowledge, etc., that gets around the Cartesian that leads to correlationism.

      • Jason,

        This clarifies a lot. We are not using the term “realism” in the sense of scholastic realism, but in the sense of mind-independent entities. Within this context, anti-realism does not entail an absence of belief in universals, but the view that nothing meaningful can be said of entities independent of humans (or language, or culture), i.e., that the being of beings is necessarily correlated with humans. A good place to start in understanding the framework of this discussion is Lee Braver’s outstanding A Thing of This World: He defends the anti-realist position.

        I don’t know that I would classify my position as psychologism or why psychologism would lead to the conclusion that only our own individual minds exist (solipsism). My position is a naturalism that rejects the existence of any non-material entities. In philosophy of mathematics there are other options besides those of psychologism and realism. There is, for example, formalism and structuralism. Formalism and structuralism are perfectly consistent with a naturalistic realism. As for the existence of mind-independent objects, I develop these arguments in chapter 1 of The Democracy of Objects, as I’ve already said a few times.

        I think your argument about identification is based on a straw-man because you keep raising this issue of arbitrariness. If I am reading you correctly there are one of two options: either we have clear and distinct criteria for identifying entities or everything is arbitrary. In epistemological matters I take what I believe to be the more modest position– indeed pragmatic position –that our concepts of things are always provisional and subject to revision and that they’re capable of being mistaken. To be sure, we come up with criteria for identifying entities and those criteria are conditions for inquiry, but these concepts are perpetually being revised. This is the case, for example, in the sciences. We now have over 2500 years of physics. In the beginnings we did not have a clear and distinct idea of what we were even investigating in physics, but rather some indicators that suggested particular directions of inquiry. Likewise, our concepts in physics will undergo substantial revision in the future as we discover that things we believed to be distinct are really one and the same thing, and as we discover the we need to revise our concept of matter.

        For me all philosophical questions need to be posed in a developmental, process-oriented framework. We need to resist the urge to fall into Plato’s full-nelson as developed in Meno and Phaedo where we’re presented with the stark alternative of either knowing something already in advance and thereby not needing to engage in inquiry or not knowing anything at all and thereby not even being able to engage in inquiry. Not only do I think that theories of inquiry such as Dewey’s theories of learning confirm this and point the way beyond Plato’s full-nelson, but I also think that developmental psychology has confirmed these points.

      • Levi,

        I have used what little time I have and must be brief.

        First, please, I am a professional and do not need references for basic terms. We are not talking about something new, esoteric, or specific to any one tradition. Moreover, please read all of my posts if you are to respond, or read them more carefully as I directly respond to your questions, and you seem to ignore that when you respond.

        Second, I did not mean to imply that there weren’t other positions concerning mathematics or many of the other subjects. Rather, this began as an addition to Matt’s defense of process metaphysics within a family resemblance of Whitehead, and thus I have narrowed the scope of my responses to address the topic at hand.

        Third, concerning identification, I am not offering a false dilemma fallacy, i.e., either scholastic realism or arbitrariness. It is not about criteria for identifying entities—it never was. Rather, to say it another way, are our descriptive categories (universals) real or not? Real in what way? This is separate from the epistemic issues, except when we do metaphysics, in which case we need to have coherent views of what we’re talking about even if we cannot certainly know that it is the case. (Look up the axiom of choice to for a concrete example of what I’m talking about; it’s about discernability/intelligibility and not identity.) You seem to be conflating the metaphysics with the epistemic issues, which is a red herring that leads to a straw man, since I’m not making statements about epistemology. You clinch this when you speak my own view, e.g., Deweyan and developmental psychology, etc., back at me.

        I do believe that you are earnest, but most of your responses fail to grasp what I am saying and appear to presume that I am far, far less knowledgeable than I am on the subject. As I’ve said before, and recently to Adam, I recommend presuming that I’m coming from a different perspective that you are mistaking for ignorance rather than difference. But then, maybe you would call that “meta.” I call it building bridges.

    • Levi, as Whitehead points out, Plato was a visionary and not a systematic thinker. Whatever we may suppose he thought, it takes a great deal of imagination to fill in the blanks. Just about every position philosophy has ever known is both defended and refuted somewhere in Plato’s dialogues. So I see Whitehead less as a transformation than as a translation of Platonic thought.

      As for eternal objects, I share Jason’s worry that it becomes rather difficult to defend any version of realism if we jettison them. Your explanation of sphericity in terms of molecules all undergoing the same material process of minimizing surface tension just leads me to wonder what you mean by “the same” in this case. “What” are we talking about if not a realized potential (that is, an eternal object ingredient in a society of actual occasions)?

      • For me potentials are real features of objects, not something other than objects. From object to object potentials can produce results that resemble one another, but they will never be identical.

      • Levi,

        To revisit the question within your own realm, is every specific potential absolutely unique? If so, then have can we identify them sufficiently to speak of them? Now, extend this question into a phenomenology, where I am at, and I ask if whiteness (a universal) is just a name for a close family resemblance of human behavioral responses? If so, then we not only give up on a realism of universals, but also realism in general since as longas our sciences are empirical. Rationalism might be a way out, and perhaps scientific realism is crypto-rationalism, but I figured none of us were doing that; i.e., the rational and intellectual is the real, and the real is the ratio [reminding us of the Latin "ratio"].

        The answer to the question from within my own theoretic framework, btw, is that we cannot know (epistemic level), and that the question is trivial at the metaphysical level since uniquity in a process framework does little work. Not so in a substance framework.

      • I don’t advocate a realism of universals. That’s what I’ve been arguing. There are metaphysically resemblances, but, following people like Leibniz, Deleuze, and Whitehead, no two things are ever exactly right. Many of the qualities we encounter are indeed, as you put it, “human behavioral responses”. We are able to go beyond the limits of our own biologically structured cognitive and perceptive capacities through various technologies and instruments. Again, you’ll find my account of why we’re nonetheless able to talk of mind-independent entities in the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects.

  8. Matt,

    I would correct “any version of realism [about universals].” Contemporary “realists” only want to defend crypto-substance–that’s what most of analytic is doing with scientific realism. Likewise, you point out that “the same” becomes a relative relation rather than an idempotent one. I suspect you know that, but I’m letting our audience know that you know, etc.

    On my blog, which we’ve discussed, I have an alternative Aristotelian phrasing of what a “society of actual occassions” is; potencies may combine to create new potenticies; they are integrative rather than autonomous (Aristotle), which allows for true creativity in nature..

  9. I have posted on what the two designations of realism and one of nominalism are on my blog. It should clear up a lot of issues on what we mean by these terms, and further explains what the problems are.

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