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

The Eternal Form of Philosophy (a response to Archive Fire)

Michael/Archive Fire has just written a gracious and astute response to my recent comment about Whitehead’s reformed Platonism. He has made me aware of the fact that my referring to Whitehead or to Plato in the hopes that they offer some sort of authoritative disambiguation is insufficient to support the arguments I am trying to make. I cannot expect Michael to read a large portion of Whitehead’s, or Plato’s corpus, nor guarantee that if he were to read these, he’d interpret them in the same way that I do. If I have any hope of adequately responding to Michael, its because I will be able to translate my reformed Platonism into forms of expression that he finds interesting (if I do draw on authority, maybe Schelling’s will be more rhetorically effective… He also is inevitably mixed up in any philosophical pie I may try to bake). Philosophical adequacy means keeping the conversation going, i.e., keeping the logos flowing.

My process philosophy is rheological, like Michael’s; but it is not just that, not just a scientific study of the flow of matter in the world. It is also a love of the way of wisdom in the world. Philosophy–at least as it was known when the word, and the way of life, was brought forth and developed in the pre- and post-Socratic philosophers–is concerned not only with contingent flows but with the “becoming of being,” the way of eternity, the living unity of the temporal universe.

Unity is the first form, the universal archetype, of philosophy; its first task is to express this unity in the multiplicities of its logoi and to discover it in the differentiations of its cosmoi. There are many important philosophical questions, among them (1) Why do things fall apart? Why Chaos? and (2) Why do things rise to attention? Why Order? I would not privilege (1) over (2), not only because both questions lead in interesting directions, keeping the logos flowing, but because I would not know what chaos was unless I had order to compare it with (and vice versa). Natural science itself already assumes the unity of the universe, that it is cosmos despite its chaos, even where it seems to methodologically require that intelligent freedom be kept distinct from a contingent and purposeless reality (i.e., that some mixture of mentality not be assumed to exist already in all materiality). This seeming methodological requirement of a modest witness to objectify neutral matter cannot be metaphysically justified. Philosophy, if it is to be anything more than an apology for nominalistic materialism, is the attempt to think the complex unity of intelligence and nature, to participate in the One Life organizing the whole. Schelling described the character of this complex unity as follows:

“Is it not manifest, that the tendency to posit the infinite in the finite and conversely the later in the former, is dominant in all philosophical speech and investigations? To think this form is [as] eternal as the essence of that which is expressed in it, and it has not just now begun, and nor will it ever cease; it is, as Socrates in Plato says, the immortal, never changing characteristic of every investigation” (from Bruno, Or on the Natural and the Divine Principle of Things (1802), I/4).

But what about Michael’s concern to bring forth a philosophy afresh? He called for “anarchic re-engagement” with tradition to avoid the tried and true pitfalls of ontotheological metaphysics. I share his concerns, even while I find tradition important (even if it is a pre-scientific and aristocratic tradition). When Whitehead wrote that philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, I believe he meant to say that he thought in the spirit, if not always in the letter, of Plato. After all, as Whitehead also suggests, most of the best criticisms of what has come to be called Platonic philosophy are in Plato’s own dialogues. Further, though Plato’s political views have come to seem oppressive to us today, in his own time, his critiques of myth and attempt to establish a society based on true merit, rather than tyrannical power, were rather progressive.

I’d prefer not to have this post turn into a defense of Plato, since Michael asked to know what I think, not what I’ve read. But then again, if I’m honest, it is hard to tell where what I’ve read and who I’ve conversed with ends and what I think or who I am begins. A kind of alchemical hermeneutics would seem to be at play here, making it impossible for me to disentangle my identity from my influences.

On to some of Michael’s specific comments:

We only have limited access to the contingencies of nature as they have unfolded so far but there is nothing that leads me to believe that the so-called “laws of nature” won’t change barring some future cosmic event.

Eternity’s participation in time does not imply the erasure of contingencies or the permanence of physical laws. Laws are cosmic habits. They could have been otherwise. What couldn’t have been otherwise is that cosmic memory (i.e., intelligence as it acts in time) would form habits of some kind. Meillassoux’s absolute contingency–hyperchaos–is an interesting thought experiment, but as a cosmological principle I just can’t bring myself to accept it. In reality, there is no pure contingency, just as there is no pure necessity: there is only a mixture of each. Laws, as habits, can and do change, but as a moving image of eternity. Like Harman, I refuse to give up on the principle of sufficient reason, even while I (following Schelling) find it necessary to think reason without the law of non-contradiction (thinking reason with contradiction is where I think a process ontology is most helpful).

Michael goes on to speak of the

“anarchistic expansion, diversification, and complexification…inaugurated by the primordial expression of potency in our cosmos, otherwise known as the ‘big-bang.’”

The “big-bang” theory is surely one of the strangest and most wonderful ideas to emerge from scientific investigation of the universe. Here, I think Michael and I have the most in common, though I’d again emphasize that I am lead by such an idea to a sense of the profound unity of the universe (i.e., all matter-energy and space-time shares a common origin) no less than to its capacity for differentiation.

There remains, finally, an important discussion to be had regarding the nature of qualities and quantities, but alas, I’ve run out of time and energy tonight and will have to take up that challenge later.



9 responses to “The Eternal Form of Philosophy (a response to Archive Fire)”

  1. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills

    You’re not pulling punches with the post title…. 😉

  2. Whitehead and the Role of Ideas in the Universe: A Psychedelic Experiment « Footnotes to Plato Avatar

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  3. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills


    I’m thinking through the conditions…. I’ll post an edited copy on my blog.

    If one explains unity in terms of material immanence, then we may ask what generates that unity. It must be either something within or without (outside) that thing. If it is without, is it a singular source or multiple? If it is singular, we are on the way to a form of Platonism. Either that source emanates form (one direction of causality) or the matter yearns for form (the other direction). If the source is multiple, then we may be on our way to process philosophy of some sort. If the source is within, then then we may ask if there is some internal potentiality that generates it. This leads to a problem, if the source of something’s unity or form is always within, then everything must be atomic and autonomous. But that means that either everything contains within itself the potentiality to be all things, or that each thing is unique in its potentiality. In either case, problems result since explaining the source or differentiations of these potentialities or “seeds” is problematic. Finally, if we try to split the difference between these two and suppose a combination of internal and external causality, then we still have the problem of unity.

    If possibility is real and primordial, then there must be some limitation on pure possibility else all would be chaos and persistent structure would be impossible. This limitation can be understood to be in some sense external to the thing. (I border on the fallacy of simple location merely to be better understood.) The source of cosmic order must be in some way external to the thing, else we must suppose that every singular thing contains these principles. By the abductive criterion of simplicity, I dismiss that. What is internal to the thing, in some sense, if its cosmic limitations are not? Its principle of generativity, its “powers.” Hence, we see here that there is a diremption of the source of cosmic order and generativity.

    After establishing all of this, we can loosen the binaries that I have presented; I have presented it as binaries merely for ease of communication.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks for this clear mapping of the conceptual terrain, Jason. I’m reminded of a book by Schelling that I plan to read very soon: “Bruno, or on the Natural and Divine Principle of Things.” From Whitehead’s perspective, the divine’s role is both as lure and as limit, as potentiality and actuality; many, including Whitehead himself, have admitted that it is difficult to hold these two poles together as one God. Schelling attempted to articulate a dipolar divinity, as well…. I’ll return to some of these questions after reading “Bruno.”

  4. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills


    Schelling is exactly where you should go to think this. I honestly think that if you can get through the verbiage that the pro- vs. con- debates of idealism make the conceptual implications of certain positions clear. I used the term “seeds” because it is his, though I am no expert at Schelling. Views of pure immanence run into problems explaining the origin of potentialities, because the explanation runs the danger of being ad hoc for the reasons I’ve been claiming.

    I’ve also read through some historic organicism vs. mechanism debates. Back then, I think the conceptual structures may have been clearer when the debates were real ones and positions had to be established. Now, when they occur, the conclusion seems foregone.

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