“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

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.





4 responses to “Whitehead: Aesthetics as First Philosophy”

  1. mary Avatar

    Hey matt,

    I wrote some notes and they aren’t well written, but I ‘m going to relay them here just as they are written in my notebook, because I didn’t jump from Meillassoux, but continued on with his “The Immanence of the World Beyond”
    and here are some notes:

    ” I feel as if I am in Aurobindo country. I read this QM at the same time I am hearing of the 8.9 earthquake in Japan and the tsunami and the possibility of a nuclear horror not seen since Chenobyll.

    I can’t stop crying …I am grieving…

    I shouldn’t make myself read world beyond, yet is it true that something isomorphic with the quake happens.
    QM is writing about the “essential grief”

    without lapsing into fideism.

    But the condition is the contingency of compassion in the Kali Yuga.

    To understand Meillassoux I have to employ a version of Henry Corbin’s (The world Turned Inside Out) “keeping an abode for them in oneself…that is each time the direct expression of a mode of being, of a modus essendi. This task demands a whole spiritual formation and its results are in turn integrated into the sum of this formation. This is why the formation that it bestows on itself is the secret of the soul…The more perceptions and representations of the universe each monad integrates, the more it unfolds its own perfection and differs from every other.”

    This reminds me of Willaim Irwin Thopmson’s description in “Coming Into Being” of Margulis’s films in which cells incorporate spirochetes by sychronozation of movements.

    What are the ontological status of these bodies of thought within philosophy, if not for the evolution of the divine of humans?

    How do we make space for Q M’s de profundis in response to the cry for justice for the dead from a non-god absent god.
    Should I re-read Jung’s answer to Job? How do we rant against god who is not god, who cannot be god.
    Christ cried out “why have you forsaken Me?” Is Q M’s spectral injustice with its inversions, absurdity, shock, outrage… the conditon of contingency necessary for free will?

    Man cries out to God and rejects any philosphical panacea that does not explain the dead who cry out, the injustice here will not be placated.

    To man, god dies

    the mirror image is God dies to man…
    This is the strange esoteric vision of Q M’s eye of a needle, a narrow way, narrow contingency beyond probability …itself.

    Is this the death of the mental mode divine for the sake of the divine evolving? Is this the mirror image within nihilism? In germ, all things praise the sublime ways of the divine?

    Meillassoux coins the term “eschaology” for a post- nihilist transformation, which strangely echoes Steiner…even Aurobindo…positing a bridge over the scylla and charybdis of the surchaos and the souschaos….and it cannot be accomplished without supramental imagination, without angels, without all astonishing novelty and feeling which such a narrow way opens ….
    I will not here write how deeply Christophanic this is for me.

    The world was never unenchanted….never…I dodged the philosophy, I dodged the so titled books, because I did not accept their first premises….the world was not unsurged of the Real; it was humans who had no ears to hear, no eyes to see,…I was Neitzsche flailing through the village…YOU have fled from the divine.

    W I Thompson in Coming into Being(p29) describing cell evolution says that inhibition is as important as excitation…. In Immanence of the world Beyond, Surchaos is the excitation, the Human cry from the depths for justice… The inhibition is the “Not Yet”
    W I T calls this an archetypal process, evolutionary at its core.
    Q M posits that from The Imaginal,arises a human ability to grasp an an advent of a “fourth world” called forth by “aporia” and so conquer nihilism. Steiner introduces the higher Etheric. The contigencies of the corporial are the emergent properties of the further dimensions.

    It seems sublime; it seems to satisfy “an aesthetics as first philosophy”…
    just as organisms feel their way into synchrony, thoughtforms comprising philosophical systems do also. Perhaps Steiner and Goethe echo still in the morphaic quality assigned to the struggle to de-alienate inuitions of a quantum world as opposed to a vegetal metaphor.

    Meillassoux calls the lure of the future, the “yonder” (Other?)
    He does not intend a telos in the De Chardin sense; but he explicates at least one set of conditions for unfreezing the intellect, the skandhas, in place in the purgatorial, situating the “vectoral subjects”, the human, in a passage most Sublime.”

    This is from my notes, matt.
    I continue to read, but not so much today, as I am sad, and will take Wichester out to where the pond drains; he loves the grass there, and I too will depend on the quiet new green for some comfort.



  2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

    I am also saddened by the terrifying events unfolding across the Pacific. I take up philosophy to defend meaning and cosmos from the nihilism and chaos at the root of much contemporary thinking. But I am reminded by this catastrophe that the earth’s order and harmony is proved by an exception: ruptures in nature’s rhythm like earthquakes and tsunamis are the inevitable result of a planet with a highly differentiated, still developing body. The crust floats atop a liquid core: the ground upon which we build our cities will never be the dead rock that industrial civilization assumes it is. The rocks, and the ocean, have a life of their own running parallel to humanity’s; the life of such non-human objects exists on a level whose purposes are not necessarily equivalent, or even translatable, into our human moralities. It seems that there is indeed an immanent reality to chaos. Chaos (or sheer, relentless Creativity) is the condition of all conditions, but without (an incarnate) God, there would be no reason for anything determinate to occur. There could not be particular facts, nor the special fact of my own facticity, without a divine determiner to bring infinite possibility into finite manifestation. That there is an earth is evidence of Reason (proportion, measure, etc.), experiential proof that beauty is alluring for the Real (that the Real is not just in-itself, but for-itself). It is also true that there exist many overlapping and non-overlapping layers of relation and non-relation amongst the beings of this earth, each layer of beings remaining hidden from the other until it ruptures and makes contact with adjacent layers, variably destroying or enlivening the beings discovered there. The people of Japan are the victims of mistranslation, not the sorry sufferers of a world which lacks all meaning. Meaningful communication often begins as contentious discord. Industrial civilization has averted its gaze rather forcefully from many of earth’s other layers of meaning, ignoring the semantic ferocity of nature due to a false sense of technological mastery. Modern techno-scientific materialism is based on the mistaken assumption that all of nature’s voices can be translated into the ontologically privileged equations of the human marketplace.

    If philosophy is not just an exercise in self-consolation, perhaps there is some logic to the above. I suppose that it is finally prayer that consoles, and not thought, since the latter is sometimes morally ruthless in its determinations.

    I hope the grass brought you and Wichester peace.

    blessed be,

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