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

Further evidence that Whitehead was already object-oriented…

From his 1927 lectures published as Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect.

While speaking about the way ordinary language can mislead us about the nature of reality, Whitehead begins reflecting on the common term “wall.”

“This so-called ‘wall,’ disclosed in the pure modes of presentational immediacy, contributes itself to our experience only under the guise of spatial extension, combined with spatial perspective, and combined with sense-data which in this example reduce to color alone. I say that the wall contributes itself under this guise, in preference to saying that it contributes these universal characters in combination. For the characters are combined by their exposition of one thing in a common world including ourselves, that one thing in which I call the ‘wall.’ Our perception is not confined to universal characters; we do not perceive disembodied color or disembodied extensiveness: we perceive the wall’s color and extensiveness. The experienced fact is ‘color away on the wall for us.’ Thus the color and the spatial perspective are abstract elements, characterizing the concrete way in which the wall enters into our experience. They are therefore relational elements between the ‘percipient at that moment,’ and that other equally actual entity, or set of entities, which we call the ‘wall at that moment.’ But the mere color and the mere spatial perspective are very abstract entities, because they are only arrived at by discarding the concrete relationship between the-wall-at-that-moment and the percipient-at-that-moment. This concrete relationship is a physical fact which may be very unessential to the wall and very essential to the percipient. The spatial relationship is equally essential both to wall and percipient: but the color side of the relationship is at that moment indifferent to the wall, though it is part of the make-up of the percipient. In this sense, and subject to their spatial relationship, contemporary events happen independently. I call this type of experience ‘presentational immediacy.’ It expresses how contemporary events are relevant to each other, and yet preserve a mutual independence. This relevance amid independence is the peculiar character of contemporaneousness. This presentational immediacy is only of importance is high-grade organisms, and is a physical fact which may, or may not, enter into consciousness. Such entry will depend on attention and on the activity of conceptual functioning, whereby physical experience and conceptual imagination are fused into knowledge” (p. 15-16).







5 responses to “Further evidence that Whitehead was already object-oriented…”

  1. Joe Avatar

    Not sure about object-oriented philosophy, but this is a very similar analysis to JJ Gibson’s ecological account of perception. Cool quote, thanks for posting.

  2. Jason Hills Avatar

    I’m with Adam on this, again. We can read OOO back into a lot of accounts, because they share fundamental insights. However, personally, I would recommend caution about doing so as its not good hermeneutics.

  3. Leon / after nature Avatar
    Leon / after nature

    This is a very good post, Matt. Contra Jason (perhaps), it is not that we are reading OOO back into Whitehead, but that because Whitehead already accomplished much of what OOO claims to do today that this reading back is already possible. In other words, Whitehead (and Peirce) were doing object-oriented philosophy long ago. As well, it is coming to light that, especially with respect to ecological theory, that a theory of the *object-as-subject* is indeed required, if not necessary, in order to properly (ethically, politically) grant full dignity (and sovereignty?) to all objects (perspectives, actual occasions, and so on).

    Deep ecology, too, would have the dignity of objects in mind and should be a resource; one not to be shallowly critiqued and all-too-soon dismissed. For example, Arne Naess speaks of the dignity of the mountain, the tree, and so forth. Or, as I research animal ethics and OOO, to my mind it is not ethically sound to refer to animals of consumption or that are used for research and testing (the pig, the cow, the rat) as objects unless we have in mind that they possess a subjective centerpoint of experience equal to our own or all – that animals too should be “brought up” in the flat ontology of ontological parity to the univocity of value, to the level of importance, that humans take themselves to occupy.

    It is safe to say that objects persist, they “ob-ject,” as in actively raise themselves in a persistent voice against other objects yet in relation to them. Thus their own *perspective*. Yet in attempting to access the center of that object-ion we are left with the problem of access. Only aesthetic or semiotic transmission remains. Hence, the object-as-subject: an entity of persistence and withdrawal. An interior centerpoint or perspective forever in withdrawal was something already noted by Whitehead, occasions whose infinite worth of value forever eludes any attempt to grasp it as a whole. Whitehead was doing this all long ago: one of the first true object oriented ecologists. Process-relational philosophy has already done the work, it is up to us to extend and apply it. Why this isn’t more readily acknowledged is beyond me although I suspect that for some, a priori Whitehead is foreclosed and a “dead option” (an act of utter stupidity) simply because theism is involved in his metaphysics.

  4. Jason Hills Avatar


    We agree. I promote cautious use of contemporary terms in historical texts.

  5. Withdrawal: Ancient and Modern Accounts | Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] Further evidence that Whitehead was already object-oriented… (footnotes2plato.com) […]

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