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

Returning to Whitehead…

After finishing my first comprehensive exam on Schelling, its now time to dive back into Whitehead. For starters, Adam over at the new minimalist Knowledge Ecology has recently been posting brilliant snippets of what I believe is a longer tract he is writing about the ecology of ideas. Here is one titled “The Alien Light“:

On an earth without humans the elephants are mourning their dead and the stars are burning with an alien light. Bees and wasps are swarming from flower to flower, targeting pollinated landing pads rich with colors of a unique visible spectrum; their buzzing messengers return with good news for the rest of the hive. Bacteria move along chemical gradients, seeking out the sugary sweetness of glucose; plankton float in the water before being consumed by baleen whales. Ancient trees cast long shadows, forcing young saplings to sprout leaves in new directions; the shadows themselves are real. The universe does not beget qualities through the emergence of the human alone; the tangled bank of the ecosystem is already filled with the rustling of leaves, croaking of frogs, and thrashing of salmon. Red, gold, and turquoise are carvings of things made by human eyes and minds, but they represent only a small diorama of the available spectrum of aesthetic experiences, an aesthetic dimension unfolding for billions of years before the arrival of the human.

A commenter asked Adam what exactly the meaning of “available” is in the context of the aesthetic experiences of the cosmos. Adam responds by saying “available” may be the wrong word, since he doesn’t think

there are something like “available qualities” just floating around, pre-existing their experience by some organism that enacts them. The problem would be that this would imply that there is something like a standing reserve of pre-existing qualities just waiting to be discovered.

I responded as follows:

I wonder where Whitehead’s eternal objects fit in to this question concerning the “availability” of qualities. These qualities are not actual until experienced by an organism, but they are nonetheless at least potentially real without these organisms. These potencies are the aesthetic lures of Whitehead’s creative cosmos. They are mediated by the divine organism, or anima mundi, who envisages an ordered totality of possibile qualities capable of shaping a given cosmic epoch. Without this divine mediation, the potential for qualitative valuation and so cosmic ordering would be infinite, which means there would be no value or cosmos at all, just a flood of pure relentless chaotic creativity.

So eternal objects aren’t exactly a “standing reserve” of pre-existing qualities, though they seem to be something like this at first. They aren’t exactly this, though, since they in no way pre-existper Whitehead’s ontological principle. Eternal objects are potentials for experience, not actualities. They are only somewhat like a standing reserve in that some finite set of eternal objects is prehended by God in order to get a cosmos to emerge out of chaotic creativity. But it doesn’t seem quite right to conceive of God as a mere store house of ideas. God is an organism, which is to say God is concerned about the ideas he/she/it envisions.






4 responses to “Returning to Whitehead…”

  1. normonics Avatar

    “Without this divine mediation, the potential for qualitative valuation and so cosmic ordering would be infinite, which means there would be no value or cosmos at all, just a flood of pure relentless chaotic creativity.”

    I’d like to hear more of why you think this is. Why does the potential for infinite creativity necessarily devalue everything? Infinite doesn’t imply ‘anything goes’. Think of the natural numbers. There are infinity natural numbers, but not everything is a natural number (1/2, for instance). The analogy is not perfect, but perhaps you see what I mean.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Adam is going to post a response to me very soon (I’ve already read it as an email, he just hasn’t made it public yet). I’ve already composed a response that I’m waiting to post until he posts his. I expand more on the issue you raise in my response. Infinite creativity would prevent anything definite from emerging. Creativity needs to be met with the resistance of habit in order for anything interesting to emerge.

      For similar reasons, Schelling is lead to posit two primordial and equally infinite forces working in opposed polarity to one another. To speak of a single infinite force is nonsense, since “force” implies resistance. If the universe was simply one infinite activity, all time would have passed in an instantaneous flash. The polar opposition of infinite forces allows for finite forms to emerge, for time to unfold gradually. In Whitehead’s terms, these forces are habit and novelty.

      Stay tuned for a more detailed post on these issues…

      1. normonics Avatar

        I’m not convinced you can’t preserve the possibility of infinite creativity while have 2 ‘opposing’ forces (like a creative and destructive force, or a habit and novelty force). But I look forward to your response.

  2. Whitehead’s Divine Function (response to Knowledge Ecology) « Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

    […] Ecology has responded to my comment about the role of the divine in Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. Let me say at the get go […]

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: