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

Formal Causality and Materialism

There have been a flurry of responses recently to an exchange between Michael/Archive Fire and I regarding formal causality (also, be sure to read Adam/Knowledge Ecology‘s comments over on Archive Fire for a nice defense of Whitehead). Jason/Immanent Transcendence posted some of his reflections, relating the issue to the old debate between realists and nominalists. Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects also chimed in, arguing that my Whiteheadian articulation of formal causation is just hylomorphism in drag. In my exchange with Michael, however, I explicitly rejected the notion that forms are imposed by a transcendent God upon passive matter. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an attempt to preserve formal (and final) causality while jettisoning the unhelpful notion of a transcendent designer. His ontological principle prevents us from conceiving of eternal objects/forms as the causes of anything. Forms are said to “ingress” into actual occasions, though not as a potter’s design is imposed on formless clay, but as a poet’s verse might invite new possibilities into manifestation. The decision to actualize any such possibility remains always in the hands of the actual occasion in question.

Here is my second response to Michael:

Occasions decide which forms will ultimately come to characterize the actual world of their experience. Forms are not ‘imposed’ upon actual occasions from outside. Much of the character of experience, especially for lower grade occasions like electrons and photons, is decided unconsciously through conformal prehension of past decisions. Physical science concerns itself with the general habits of such low grade occasions. But higher grade occasions like ravens, coyotes, and primates, are not so determined by physical prehensions of past actualities, since they have a heightened experience, through conceptual prehension, of future possibilities. In human occasions of experience, this futural perception reaches its near apogee. In Process and Reality, Whitehead discusses our conceptual prehension of eternal objects in terms of consciousness’ capacity for negation–to see the facticity of not only of that grey rock there and to know it could have been otherwise, but to see the whole of the visible universe and know the same. The contingency of nature is not mere chance, but the result of will–will which leans toward more degrees of freedom as moves through the series of natural kingdoms, at first an unconscious flow of emotion, only later rising to the level of the symbolic and intellectual articulation of emotion.

You argue that ‘pure difference’ is at the base of materiality, but I am uncertain what you mean. Wouldn’t its supposed ‘purity’ already be a sign of contamination by identity? Its the old (“archaic”?) problem of the one and the many, of cosmos and chaos. Plato, you’ll remember, did not conceive of form in abstraction from matter, but sought to understand how eternity and time, permanence and process, come to be mixed up into the Living Thing that is the Universe. Eros and metaxy, and not ideal purity, are at the core of the Platonic philosophy, at least as I understand it. The challenge Plato left for philosophy is how to think the in between. Contemporary physics, so far as I understand it, no longer studies nature as substance, but as interlocking processes of formation. This is not all that different from the Schellingian interpretation of Plato’s Timaeus, as unpacked by Iain Hamilton Grant.

You write: ‘Sunsets are not “eternal possibilities” but immanent actualities generated through the emergent activities and collaboration of photons, electrons, hydrogen, helium, oxygen, earth, etc., etc., as they are “stacked” into particular living ecologies. World-flesh is self-sufficient complexity.’

In my prior post, I wasn’t referring to sunsets as eternal possibilities, but to a particular shade of red realized in the sunset. “Red” certainly cannot be explained by reference to the physical bodies you’ve listed, though I would agree about its ecological origins. “Red” is what Whitehead called a subjective eternal object, capable of realization in any number of actual occasions though not reducible to any one in particular or to all in summation. Qualities like redness, and quantities like the number 17, cannot be explained by reference to materiality, since materiality itself would be meaningless without reference to quality and to quantity (which for Whitehead, unlike Kant, are not categories of the human mind, but forms of definiteness characterizing prehension in general).




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11 responses to “Formal Causality and Materialism”

  1. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills

    Matt, this is good work. Let me highlight what I take to be the crucial point of your post.

    “Qualities like redness, and quantities like the number 17, cannot be explained by reference to materiality, since materialism itself would be meaningless without reference to quality … which for Whitehead, unlike Kant, are not categories of the human mind.”

    Levi Bryant, and those following in his wake, cannot explain the reality of meaning. Materialism as so far described cannot do that, and it resorts to epistemic nominalism by Levi’s admission. He invokes transcendental argumentation, but if qualities are not real (if scholastic realism is not true), then no transcendental argument will do the explanatory job, Bhaskarian or not.

    The pragmatists and Whitehead insist that meaning and human conscious experience is real, i.e., not human-centered, whereas Levi’s and other’s arguments assume a Lockean perspective on human experience that the afore-said do not share. Human experience is a natural phenomenon–nature is the agent first–and the human is second. Since there is not separation of the natural and human, this does not denigrate the human.

    Matt’s talk about eternal objects is part of a Whiteheadian explanation of how qualities can be real, i.e., immanent to the thing like in Aristotle but not Plato, yet still contingent unlike Aristotle. Form on this view should not be understood as a “cause,” as Aristotle articulated it, but as a “habit” as derivative of Peirce. Nature has regularities, i.e., laws, qualities, etc. because it has habits, but habits are neither eternal nor inviolate.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar


      Thanks for your encouragement. As I’ve been discussing with Adam, I feel I am at the very edge of my own understanding regarding these matters. I am only sure of what I am left unsatisfied by (i.e., nominalistic materialism).

      1. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills

        You are welcome.

        I also encourage you because I don’t want you to doubt yourself. You are holding your own quite fine and need not be so modest. You know Whitehead far better than I, which is one reason I don’t mention him much as there is little you could learn from me. But the issue, as I have been saying, is much larger than Whitehead. I’m trying to point to what the core issues are.

        Nominalist materialism is a respectable position. However, in arguing for it and against what you, and in a different way, what I say, I think that interlocutors should be very clear on why someone would rationally chose to be on one side of the debate or the other. As a scholastic realist, I can say that human experience is really real, “reaches down into nature” as Dewey would say, though we both point out that it is more accurate to say that nature “blossoms up to gift us with its splendors.” I do not think that human experience is an epiphenomenon or an illusion, though I also do not think its representation or privileged. Many nominalists are far more skeptical than scholastic realists are, and I accept that as a reason to chose that route. That said, there are logical consequences of either position, and everyone should be willing to explore those consequences, though I think only one interlocutor is being hesitant about that.

        Nominalists should think about this. Every time a person claims that this or that is a “potency” one is making an induction or abduction. The inductive case is most akin to Hume. If one argues via abduction, and transcendental argumentation is closely related, but is also a nominalist, then reality can never enter into any of the abductive criteria. One is all but forced to be what analytics call an epistemic “anti-realist.” That means that the abductive criteria that one invokes to chose about hypotheses, or even metaphysical systems, must be chosen on human-dependent criteria, e.g., social, cultural, political, economic, etc. But then one has de jure and de facto given up on claims not to be anthropocentric.

    2. Wiktoria Avatar

      God’s working, like He aaylws does. When I thought about my blog, I was trying to think about how I can mix design with my thoughts. I’m still trying to work it out. But what i’m getting to, is that you and what God does in you, does inspire me. I hope to also inspire others, but not in that recognition way but just purely by others wanting to know more about God through me. I was just thinking, like the other day me and a friend were thinking this, it’s so beautiful how know matter who in the world you are chatting to, when they’ve got a relationship with God you can have chats like never before, because you guys can relate to the biggest thing that someone would ever want to relate to and that is Jesus Christ and how He is at work in our lives, everyday, and everyday we have something new to share, beautiful isn’t it. Thanks lady. Lots of love. x

  2. Michael- Avatar

    Matt, (and Jason) I’ll get back to you asap on this, as I had a hectic weekend and I’m recovering from a fairly brutal kickboxing competition sunday afternoon. Don’t want to comment when I’m still a bit punchy 🙂

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