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

Occasionalism in Whitehead and Harman

An important discussion continues to unfold in the comment section of this post over at Knowledge-Ecology. We are trying to figure out what metaphysical work Whitehead’s eternal objects do, among other things.

Here is my last comment:

I think Whitehead gives you withdrawal without returning to an ontology of substances. Adam and I have been trying to figure this out for months, and I will admit that Whitehead does sometimes seem to reduce occasions to their relations, since in time (and his is a process metaphysics after all), no occasion or society of occasions ever remains identical to itself. There are no enduring substances, only enduring societies.

However, withdrawal can be saved due to the technical features of Whitehead’s system. Whitehead risks a set of abstractions by analyzing an indivisible moment of concrescence into its component parts. An occasion can be said to be withdrawn from its relations at a certain point in the process: just before it passes over from a subject to a superject; precisely when its relations are self-characterized or decided upon as the complex character of eternal objects to be included in its experience, there and then it is withdrawn from every other occasion. At this slice of time in the process of concrescence, abstractly analyzed, the occasion is dipping below the surface into eternity while still riding upon the wave of time. The “who” experiencing the world in this or that way at the molten core of the occasion is God; and though allured by the world, and the world by it, God is withdrawn from direct contact with it. God isn’t making a totally free decision in any given occasion, since it must deal with the emotional consequences of prior occasions.

We should not forget Harman’s fascination with occasionalism.

We all want some kind of withdrawal… the question for me is whether we want to bring back substance ontology or theology in order to get it. I’d rather do theology, maybe only because I’m more of a Platonist than an Aristotelian.

Here’s a Platonist for you:

“…every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany, that is, a divine apparition. For…the more secretly it is understood, the closer it is seen to approach the divine brilliance. Hence the inaccessible brilliance of the celestial powers is often called by theology ‘Darkness.’”
– John Scotus Eriugena, Periphyseon







8 responses to “Occasionalism in Whitehead and Harman”

  1. Steven Shaviro Avatar

    I’m not sure why the concept of “withdrawal” is desirable in the first place. But note that Whitehead says that actual occasions are all absolutely independent of one another in the present. An occasion only prehends the data from occasions in the past. See Adventures of Ideas, p 195:
    “The vast causal independence of contemporary occasions is the preservative of the elbow-room within the Universe. It provides each actuality with a welcome environment for irresponsibility. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ expresses one of the earliest gestures of self-consciousness.”
    This seems to me to affirm independence (no occasion is ever *reducible to* the sum of its relations) without requiring entities to “withdraw” from one another. To my mind, Harman’s “withdrawal” (derived from Heidegger) is too inflated a formulation; I find Whitehead’s sense of the independence of contemporary occasions to be much more useful.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks for that reference, Steven. I was trying to suggest this in my post above. If we analyze concrescence into its component parts, an occasion only stands apart from other occasions in its own immediate present. As for the concept of withdrawal, I am not sure if it is its use-value that I’m after, but a sense of ethical responsibility. Withdrawal helps me to remember the subjective life of others, and the extent to which I can never finally judge what they are or are not capable of.

  2. Kathleen Avatar

    you repeat this paragraph partially. great stuff though.

    Ritual performance, and the creative efflorescence it encourages, is at the existential core of our lives, and indeed is the beating heart at the center of creation. The meaning of the world and the order of the cosmos must be enacted, or imaginally bodied forth. The human imagination, the Seal of creation, does not receive the world’s meaning ready-made, but must participate in its making: “The creature of earth and heaven [upholds] within his own being the bond that [joins] the material world to its source of life.”53 There is no meaning on earth unless we are willing to play, to make present what would not otherwise be here. Imagination is the soul’s temple, the holy of holies within which immanence and transcendence meet and give birth to worlds worth living in. Religion, like science and art, is born out of playfulness. Humans may not be the only creatures who play, but surely only we take play seriously.

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