Jason/Immanent Transcendence has asked me to offer a Whiteheadian take on his recent posts (two examples are HERE, and, especially relevant, HERE) concerned with such ideas as purpose, process, form, time, and chance in John Dewey. Jason has also recently written about a Deweyan approach to the place of values in nature while in conversation with Levi Bryant (HERE).
A. N. Whitehead appears to be the more cosmological thinker, Dewey the more epistemological. Their impact as thinkers is similar, since both put their abstract theorizing into play in the educational arena to great acclaim. Their theorizing about nature, and the nature of the mind, was equally rooted in the ontogenic aspect of nature, i.e., in nature’s unthingedness. Nature’s ontogenesis (like Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, Creativity), cannot be represented rationally, since it is the ground and condition of rationality. For this reason, Whitehead says of his cosmological scheme that it emerges originally from non-rational aesthetic and moral valuations, from an “imaginative leap” dependent upon the generative power of metaphor (Process and Reality, 4). Philosophy, for Whitehead, aims for “sheer disclosure” (Modes of Thought, 49), not deductive proof or logical demonstration (though logic is always a part of philosophy, it is not the whole). To approach the creative origin of being and the cosmos with logos, it is necessary to speak as this creativity (i.e., to speak poetically), since any thought about this creativity immediately converts the infinite originality of reality into a determinate totality, a closed world rent asunder into a transcendental subject reflecting upon finite objects, including itself. Representational or intentional thought–thought about things–when left to its own devices, leads to all the modern diseases of philosophy: nominalism, positivism, nihilism, etc.
If we’re seriously going to concern ourselves with the genesis of being and of nature, it is absolutely necessary that we learn to play with words. Without metaphor, we cannot even begin to approach such an unplaceable topic. Whitehead’s was an aesthetic philosophy, his theology poetic (e.g., here’s a post on Catherine Keller’s Whiteheadian theopoetics). We know that finite nature is a unified cosmos only because its overarching beauty has swayed us. Whitehead’s theodicy accounts for the reality of good and evil, of harmony and discord, on aesthetic grounds. The universe is a thing of beauty, but its origin is entirely unruly (or, as Jason might say, it is “ruled” by chance). Reality is rooted in (a priori) absolute freedom and amoral creativity; but this unruly reality has been (a posteriori) generative of cosmic beauty and personal love. The former freedom is the condition of possibility, the latter personality is the actualized fact. “In the beginning,” there was no distinction between time/habit/material memory and chance/novelty/eternal possibility. When we contemplate the sky here and now in the present, we experience a moving image of eternity; when we consider our body’s relation to the sky here and now, we experience the logos taking on flesh. Here and now habit and novelty are together begetting personality. Conscience is being created, an event which is forever changing the meaning of the original Creativity creating it, and of the Chaos that may in the future destroy it. Creativity and Chaos, like the morning and evening appearances of Venus, are merely different seasons of the same indifferent star. It is only from the present that metaphor can carry us beyond ourselves into the past or future.
I’ve grown tired, so I’ll end by letting Keats sing the tragic tune of our contingently harmonious cosmos. This the first two stanzas of “Endymion”:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:Its loveliness increases; it will neverPass into nothingness; but still will keepA bower quiet for us, and a sleepFull of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathingA flowery band to bind us to the earth,Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearthOf noble natures, of the gloomy days,Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened waysMade for our searching: yes, in spite of all,Some shape of beauty moves away the pallFrom our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boonFor simple sheep; and such are daffodilsWith the green world they live in; and clear rillsThat for themselves a cooling covert make‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:And such too is the grandeur of the doomsWe have imagined for the mighty dead;All lovely tales that we have heard or read:An endless fountain of immortal drink,Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.Nor do we merely feel these essencesFor one short hour; no, even as the treesThat whisper round a temple become soonDear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,The passion poesy, glories infinite,Haunt us till they become a cheering lightUnto our souls, and bound to us so fast,That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast;They always must be with us, or we die.
- Whitehead, Eternal Objects, and God (footnotes2plato.com)
- Formal Causality and Materialism (footnotes2plato.com)
- Whitehead’s Experiential Universe (a response to Archive Fire) (footnotes2plato.com)
- Whitehead and the Role of Ideas in the Universe: A Psychedelic Experiment (footnotes2plato.com)
- Asking Terrence Deacon about Whitehead’s Reformed Platonism (footnotes2plato.com)
- Poetic Imagination in the Speculative Philosophies of Plato, Schelling, and Whitehead [final draft] (footnotes2plato.com)