Types of Explanation in Whitehead and Hegel

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I’m still working my way through Hegel and Whitehead: Contemporary Perspectives on Systematic Philosophy (1986), ed. by George R. Lucas, Jr. Today I read Klaus Hartmann’s (University of Tubingen) essay, “Types of Explanation in Hegel and Whithead”. Hartmann finds both similarities and differences in their respective approaches to philosophy. Among the similarities, he notes their mutual concern for organic wholes, for process, and for teleology (p. 61). Hartmann avoids rushing to any premature merger of their systems, however, arguing that Whitehead’s metaphysical cosmology and Hegel’s categorial theory of ontology rest upon incompatible methods of philosophical explanation.

In short, while Whitehead is committed to a flat ontology, wherein there is only a single category of beings (namely, actual entities), Hegel devises a “systematic hermeneutic of possible categories” to serve as “a matrix to diagnose the categorial commitments of the various philosophies that have been [historically] proposed” (p. 71). Hegel leaves open the possibility of multiple “addresses of Being,” each one comparatively valid in the historical moment of its articulation. In other words, Hegel’s ontology is based in a dialectical account of the evolution of consciousness, wherein the varied philosophical positions of history are integrated into Absolute Spirit, the final truth of Thought’s conscious identity with Being. In this context, Hartmann asks of Whitehead whether the actual entities of his metaphysical atomism remain open to the possibility of “higher” categories serving as “genuine pledges for novel ontological realms,” or, in contrast, if such pledges are to be interpreted as “predicates qualifying monadic individuals” (p. 71). Hartmann suggests that Hegel’s Logic is ontologically self-grounding, and opposes it to Whitehead’s “merely hypothetical scheme” (p. 73), which limits the reality of reasons to what takes place within the concrescence of actual entities.

I am not sure if this is an entirely fair criticism of Whitehead, since I understand his (though admittedly still “imaginative” and “interpretive”) approach to speculative philosophy to be similarly self-grounding ontologically. I would say that this depends on the ultimate coherence of Whitehead’s understanding of the relationship between the infinite potentiality of Creativity, the everlasting actuality of God, and the finite actuality of the occasions of the world. Hartmann claims that Whitehead “hypostatizes universals like the exoteric Plato” (p. 69), but this is a misinterpretation of God’s role as an actual entity in the envisagement of eternal objects, which themselves remain deficient in actuality (i.e., abstract). Concreteness, in Whitehead’s system, is found only in the experience of actual occasions.

If God and the world mutually condition one another, such that neither can be understood in isolation, then the explanatory circle is closed and reality is able to give an account of itself. Whether or not Whitehead’s metaphysics actually holds together in this respect still needs to be argued. While Hegel’s categories unfold out of each other according to the implicit necessity of the Idea, Whitehead, a radical empiricist, abductively generates his categories, based on generalizations from experience, grounding them in reality through tests of adequacy and in logic through the tests of coherence.

In terms of a doctrine of the evolution or historical development of consciousness, I think Hegel probably does a better job fleshing out the implications, but that Whitehead also recognizes the importance of the “learning process of humanity” (p. 74), especially in Adventures of Ideas. In a way similar to Hegel, who tracks the unfolding of the World-Spirit in human history towards freedom from the feeling soul, through consciousness, self-consciousness, objective Spirit, to culminate in Absolute Spirit, Whitehead remarks that:

“The [civilizational] improvement [of the behavior-systems of human beings in their intercourse with each other] depended on the slow growth of mutual respect, sympathy, and general kindness. All these feelings can exist with the minimum of intellectuality. Their basis is emotional, and humanity acquired these emotions by reason of its unthinking activities amid the course of nature. But mentality as it emerges into coordinated activity has a tremendous effect in selecting, emphasizing, and disintegrating. We have been considering the emergence of ideas from activities, and the effect of ideas in modifying the activities from which they emerge. Ideas arise as explanatory of customs and they end by founding novel methods and institutions” (p. 100).

The main difference in their respective accounts of the progress of civilization is that Hegel envisioned a final moment or absolute end to history, while Whitehead seemed to believe that the “adventure of ideas,” while still teleological in some sense, was ultimately open-ended and without foreseeable conclusion.


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