Whiteheadian thoughts on the thingliness of ideas (responses to Archive Fire and Knowledge Ecology)

Michael/Archive Fire and Adam/Knowledge Ecology are at it again, working to sort through the material, semiotic, and ideational strands of the cosmic mesh to figure out what is real and what isn’t. In both positions, I detect a desire for ecological realism, the sort of realism where Santa Claus, mountain pine beetles, global capitalism, black holes, and strawberries are each considered to be real causal actors, each in its own unique way. But only Michael explicitly argues that a certain set of these actors–ideas–should ultimately be understood as secondary effects of causes operating at a more basic level–that is, (vibrant, dynamic) physicality. I agree with Michael that ideas are embodied and enacted, that they cannot play a causal role in the creative advance of nature without being ingredient in some definite occasion of socially organized experience. But I do not think it follows that this obvious co-relationality between ideas and living bodies implies that ideas, or indeed minds (in some non-Cartesian/post-Whiteheadian sense of the word mind) are epiphenomenal to technologically mediated physiological activity. As Whitehead says, the things which are temporal arise by their participation in the things which are eternal, just as the things which are eternal arise by their participation in the things which are temporal. There is a relation of co-emergence, of dependent origination, between timeless potentials and actual occasions. … Ideas and Minds do not operate independently of material signs and living bodies. They do not exist without leaving symbolic traces and a heat signature. But it does not follow that they are not real things. If anything is a “thing,” ideas are things. I need to take a detour into Whitehead’s account of perception before returning to the thingliness of ideas… (a thing here would be an object in Harman’s lingo). In Whitehead’s lingo, we would say that a given thing (actual entity) withdraws from its prehensions by other things precisely because if it were not in some way withdrawn from these prehensions, there would not be anything definite to distinguish it from other entities to make it “just this entity here-now.” Ideas, in Whitehead’s lingo, are conceptual prehensions. We could also call them abstract feelings of future possibilities. For most occasions of experience, physical feelings of past actualities predominate over conceptual feelings of future possibilities. Still, all occasions include a mix of physical with conceptual feelings: nowhere in the universe are there events unfolding in a purely repetitive way, without any appetitive adjustment. Granted, in the inorganic societies studied by physicists, novelty is negligible enough to ignore in equations describing the behavior of the universe is timespans relevant to human existence. In longer timescales (i.e., more than 13.7 billion years ago), it seems the “laws” of physics can no longer account for visible nature without making room for the possibility of radical novelty/extreme negentropy “before” the “beginning” of time. Even at the level of quantum events, the appetition for novelty is present. If it were not, the universe never would have transformed from superheated plasma into living protoplasm or human minds. The formation of the first atoms, and certainly the first stars, already provides evidence of the universe’s desire to out run the past by incarnating ever new forms of organization. Human consciousness is only a more extreme expression of this same desire. Implanting experience and ideality into the most fundamental features of reality is an attempt to account, in one general metaphysical scheme, for the evolution of the organizational complexity of nature from plasma to person. It is an attempt to avoid the traditional metaphysical bifurcation between appearance and reality that has plagued Western philosophy the formalization of Aristotle’s substance-predicate logic. Bifurcated metaphysics either reduce the person to the plasma (materialism), or the plasma to the person (idealism); either way, half of nature has been lost. For those more complex social canalizations of experiential occasions associated with we thoroughly mediated human souls and our technological societies, prehension is predominantly conceptual, with physical prehension fading into irrelevance. The great danger of unchecked intelligence is that it forgets its bodily roots in the rhythms of the brain, heart, and lungs and its cosmic source in the rhythms of the Milky Way galaxy, the Sun, and the Moon. By forgetting its source in the soil between earth and sky, intelligence dismembers itself and the ecology to which it belongs. Becoming deaf and blind to the material-semiotic flows tenuously tying it to the network of others living within and amongst it, it loses contact with the erotic and aesthetic lifeblood its life depends on. Intelligence is driving our species into extinction, and taking a lot of others with us. I think I can understand why Michael has such a distaste for the notion that ideas are just as real as bodies. He writes:

Giving up on ‘ideas’ as objects helps us understand what Wittgenstein and Derrida and Rorty (and the Buddha and Lao Tsu among others) wanted to teach us, in the sense that conceptuality – and by extension all knowledge – is intrinsically undecidable, unstable and ephemeral. And this insight has some very serious political, existential and philosophical implications.

I agree completely that conceptuality is often undecidable. Reality usually always out runs our everyday descriptions. But on some rare occasions, like those concocted in the laboratory by experimental physicists, the conceptual structure of reality becomes decidable to an uncanny degree of accuracy as formal mathematical descriptions are found to correlate with natural processes. These descriptions remain approximations, of course, since they are never purely conceptual. It needs to be said, to balance Michael’s denial of conceptuality, that sensuality is no less unstable and ephemeral. Prehension, since it always carries a mix of physical and conceptual factors, is necessarily abstraction. If it were not abstraction, each actual entity would contain every other actual entity within itself in such a direct way that there would be no way to tell any two actual occasions apart. Without eternal objects/ideas to mediate between the mutual prehensions of particular actual occasions, their particularity would become meaningless: all time and space would collapse into an instantaneous null-point. Pure conceptual knowledge is as undecidable as pure sensation. It is only when creatively contrasted that something actual can emerge.

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5 thoughts on “Whiteheadian thoughts on the thingliness of ideas (responses to Archive Fire and Knowledge Ecology)

  1. Pingback: The Ecology of Ideas, Objects, and Things – Part 1 « (((Knowledge Ecology)))

  2. Very good response Matthew. I will do my best to match your enagement here in a follow-up post that will include my response to what Adam put up on his blog today. It’s always fun to get into it with you guys..

  3. Pingback: Whitehead’s Endo-Theology « Footnotes 2 Plato

  4. Pingback: Whitehead’s Process Atomism (response to Graham Harman) « Footnotes 2 Plato

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