Whitehead: Aesthetics as First Philosophy

I’ve jumped from Meillassoux‘s After Finitude to reading Steven Shaviro‘s book on Whitehead, Kant, and Deleuze Without Criteria (2009). A few thoughts have occured to me…

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism possesses an immunity to post-Kantian skepticism, since it arises out of a radically embodied characterization of sensory experience. Empiricism, for Whitehead, does not mean paying attention only to raw sense data devoid of necessary connections, as in Hume. Like Kant, Whitehead has a more textured conception of fact, or what is given to us experientially prior to cognitive operations of any sort. Time and space, as Shaviro points out, are not categories of the understanding added to experience after the fact, but the inner and outer modes of intuition given as our immediately felt connection with the body and the world. Of course, our intuitions of space and time are not entirely immediate, since we feel these with the body and so experience them through the mediation of our perceptual organs. But these organs are experienced by us immediately, and the flow of sensation through the nerves of our own body is clear evidence of causation. The raw sensa, or bare universals, that Hume mistakenly assumed were the atoms of perceptual experience are actually a later cognitive abstraction. There is no evidence of causal efficacy at this level of conscious experience (what Whitehead calls “presentational immediacy”), since it is here that our human freedom becomes most pronounced. One of the unique features of human consciousness seems to be its capacity to step back from the emotionally saturated causal vectors inherited by bodily organs in order to disinterestedly observe them. Whitehead thinks this capacity for the conceptual prehension of eternal objects (or universals) is present in all organisms to some degree, but it reaches extremes in especially reflective moments of human consciousness.

Meillassoux’s chapter on Hume’s problem might have benefited from Whitehead’s analysis. Meilloussoux asks why the apparent connection between events given to us perceptually should be allowed to trump our cognitive grasp of the absolute contingency of such events. But what if philosophy were to acknowledge that cognition is a species of feeling? Causality, which for Kant was a category added to experience by the understanding, would no longer be necessary, but nor would it be purely contingent. The connective glue between bodies would be habitual, but not in the sense that Hume meant (as though it were only a limitation of the human mind that restricted us from true knowledge of real events). Whitehead’s construal of causal efficacy transforms effects into affects, thereby connecting actual occasions in a sensual matrix in which ordered behavior becomes canalized for the sake of lasting beauty and prolonged enjoyment. There is no necessary connection between events, but things nonetheless have an aesthetic longing to relate harmoniously. Novelty also enters into the causal flow of events to disrupt encrusted formations of order, but it is always checked by the socializing tendencies of actual occasions. The subjectivities composing the universe desire freedom from each other even while they seek to merge with one another, creating a cosmic pulsation always verging on but never falling entirely over into the chaotic mystery at the root of reality.