Whitehead’s Process Atomism (response to Graham Harman)

Graham Harman has jumped in offering his own response to my recent comment directed at Levi Bryant regarding his interpretation of Whitehead.

The core issue, for Harman, is whether Whitehead’s position is ultimately reducible to some form of relationism, wherein an actual occasion is no more than the sum of its prehensions, or whether Whitehead’s accounts of an occasion’s self-creation and self-enjoyment are enough to preserve some sort of individual withdrawal, thereby allowing genuine novelty to erupt in the course of cosmogenesis. Without such withdrawal, says Harman, there could be no change at all, much less novelty, since each actual occasion would always already be related to every other actual occasion. Without points of rupture in the continuum of relations, nothing new, nothing different, could ever emerge. Harman writes:

Change obviously occurs, and in my view Whitehead has a surprisingly difficult time accounting for it, despite the common impression that he is a philosopher of process and change (he is actually a remorseless philosopher of static instants, just like Heidegger– another philosopher who is wrongly viewed as a thinker of time). You can’t just say “of course Whitehead knows that things change,” and then hypostatize that awareness by positing concepts such as “concrescence” and “enjoyment” and dodging the question of whether they are prehensional or something more than prehensional (both of which lead to severe problems for Whitehead).

I’m honestly not sure what Harman is getting at by saying Whitehead is a remorseless philosopher of static instants. As far as I’m aware, Whitehead is a process philosopher, such that the relational flux of the cosmic nexūs is the foreground of his cosmology. His understanding of the universe of classical physics is similar to Bergson’s: physical science had become increasingly adept at spatializing time, allowing it to view nature denuded of value, quality, and duration. This lead to all sorts of metaphysical paradoxes, the results of badly analyzed composites and abstract bifurcations.

On the other hand, Whitehead was unwilling to follow Bergson’s anti-intellectualism. Picking up where Bergson left off (with his important critique of the philosophical tradition’s habit of backgrounding fluency in favor of the clear and distinct stasis of abstract categories like “extension”), Whitehead employs his own form of intellectual intuition to further differentiate fluency into two kinds (PR, 210):

1) concrescence (=”the real internal constitution of a particular existent”; i.e., the individual final causes of the universe), and 2) transition (=the perishing of a particular existent’s process, thereby “constituting that existent as an original element in the constitutions of other particular existences elicited by repetitions of process”; i.e., the transfer of inherited efficient causes through the universe). The continuity of the universe is preserved by the process of transition, while the withdrawal of individual occasions, and therefore the potential for novelty, is preserved by the process of concrescence. Unlike transition, concrescence is not simply prehensional. “Each actual occasion defines its own actual world from which it originates. No two occasions can have identical actual worlds” (210). Concrescence is the process by which any given actual occasion prehends the many occasions of its extensive continuum into some new definite form of unity (=achievement of subjective value) to be added to the ongoing advance of nature.

This differentiation between concrescence and transition allows Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, despite its generally processual orientation, to remain nonetheless explicitly atomic. This comes through clearly enough in Process and Reality, where Whitehead writes: “the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism” (35). He is lead to this conclusion largely as a result of the discoveries of quantum and relativity theories concerning the nature of time. 20th century science was forced to reject two ideas that had long provided its metaphysical first principles: 1) the idea of nature at an instant, and 2) the idea that the universe had a single continuous time flow.

On this point, Whitehead writes (35):

“There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming. The actual occasions are the creatures which become, and they constitute a continuously extensive world. In other words, extensiveness becomes, but ‘becoming’ is not itself extensive.”

He concludes, as I quoted above, that atomic discontinuity is an ultimate metaphysical truth. The continuously extensive world with its universal relationality he considers an accident, not a metaphysical necessity: “continuity is a special condition arising from the society of creatures which constitute our immediate epoch” (36). The advance of nature involves an inheritance of rhythmic pattern from one concrescent occasion to the next. Between occasional beats, intervals are opened up, leaving room for improvisation.

Let me just add that, while I’ve obviously been influenced a tremendous amount by attempting to think with Whitehead, I realize that he is not infallible. My disagreement with Harman’s and Bryant’s critique is not a result of my wanting to protect a sacred cow from blasphemers; it is rather a result of wanting to be clear about the specifics of the metaphysical scheme that Whitehead has left us. I’m all for finding flaws and hacking the system to make improvements and to keep it relevant. But in this particular case, I just don’t think it is at all fair to Whitehead’s scheme to claim he reduces individuals to the flux. It seems like a simple mistake to me, easy enough to correct with a moderately careful reading his texts. Perhaps there is something deeper to the critique that Harman and Bryant are leveling, but they seem to have aimed it poorly; at least, I haven’t felt the force of the blow yet…

P.S.- Aside from Process and Reality, another good place to turn for Whitehead’s account of “forms of unity” and the relationship between the two kinds of fluency is chapter 5 of Modes of Thought, “Forms of Process.”