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

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.”



13 responses to “Whitehead’s Process Atomism (response to Graham Harman)”

  1. Leon Avatar

    You are right, Matt. It is a mistake on Harman’s part to call Whitehead a “relationist.” I can’t accept Graham’s false dilemma because he is wrong even on the background assumptions. It’s not *relational* process thought but *process*-relational thought, and relation just aint “correlation.” The burden of proof is on the OOOer to account for change (process) without beggin the question, not the other way around.

    1. terenceblake Avatar

      I agree that the debate over relations masks a problem concerning temporality, process, Bergsonian duration. I remember being quite perplexed one year when I went to a seminar by Michel Serres where he discussed the Einstein vs Bergson debate and declared that Bergson was simply wrong, and going to one of Deleuze’s cinema seminars where he declared that Bergson was misunderstood as intervening in the scientific debate and that in fact he was doing something quite different: constructing a philosophical concept of time adequate to the contemporary scientific revolutions in physics. His claim was that even the concepts of spatialized time versus processual time were a preliminary characterisation of a deeper difference concerning different types of multiplicities: intensive multiplicities that are assemblages of different lines or dimensions and extensional multiplicities that are assemblages of elements. Intensive multiplicities are always relational in that they imply a relation to other multiplicities and always “dis-relational” or unlinked or singular in that they also comport constitutively affects or what he call “quality-powers”. It is in the breakdown of habitual relations that new affects can arise, generating non-ordinary or creative responses and continuations. This is what I see in your remark that “Between occasional beats, intervals are opened up, leaving room for improvisation”. In a nutshell, Harman cannot get further than Deleuze’s movement-image, and even here he is handicapped by an inadequate theory of relations. He certainly cannot get to, nor even “get”, the time-image. So his notion of withdrawal is the trace of that which eludes and withdraws from him, universalised into that which withdraws period.

      1. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills

        I was going to pile-on explanations, but I think Terence has said it more eloquently than I could.

        I would reiterate that too often philosophers, especially analytics, think of “relations” in terms of predicate logic rather than existential or onto-logic. Likewise, they think of change in terms of differentiation in predicates. This leaves the structure, the dynamic process, of change a mystery, but that is precisely what I am trying to explain. Take a part out of a structure and it collapses.

        I do like the Bergsonian verbiage, Terrence, and can confirm that it works for Peirce and Dewey.

        I am not familiar with the “time-image.” Can time even be imaged? I tried drawing a processive view of time for some colleagues. A single instant was a complicated mess of possibility structures.

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        There is an essay by Niels Vigo Hansen in Physics and Whitehead called “Space-time and becoming: overcoming the contradiction between special relativity and the passage of time” that seems to cover a lot of this territory. Along with reading Deleuze’s Bergsonism, Hansen’s short essay really cleared up what Bergson was up to (how he did make some mistakes interpreting Einstein, but that his overall argument still holds), and how Whitehead carried his critique further. I can email anyone who wants it a PDF of the essay.

  2. […] in fact is deeply indebted to the real Whitehead (and not his spatialised caricature). Matt Segall gives an account of such emergence in Whitehead in terms of the difference between concrescence and […]

  3. Jason Hills Avatar

    Matt, would it be correct to say that there is a continuity of time (relativity, change, connectedness), but not a continuity of determinate existence (actual occassions)?

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      As I understand it, the continuous structure of time (=extensive continuum) is a contingent fact about the way actual occasions have come to relate in this cosmic epoch; it need not necessarily be so. The only thing that is necessary for Whitehead is the structure of the becoming of actual occasions (=concrescence/determinate existence), which is indeed discontinuous. Actuality has a pulse; there is not continuous, unobstructed flow.

  4. Leon Avatar

    On a related line of thought: “Feyerabend compared the hegemony of the predicate calculus to the medieval scholars who had to translate everything into Latin to make it ‘clear’.” I have also been thinking about how vagueness fits into the notion of the passage of time as event. If events are clearly defined as having rigid borders – let’s say as objects – objects are what objects *do* – then is there such as thing as a “vague object?” I ask because I haven’t seen an explanation of a.) how objects change if time is only superficial or b.) what specifically individuates an object except itself and its own negative “difference” engine.. If b. is taken to be literally true then there *can be no relations* – at all. Specific individuation at the level of the individual only would isolate all actual occasions, events, objects (what I call “dynamic singular agents”) such that communication between them would be impossible. Difference would be the principle of continuity, which is a contradiction in metaphysical (at the level of reality, ontological) terms.

    Continuity must as well be a reality, as the reality of relation. This is not to say that they are the prevalent orders. But they must have a reality nonetheless.

    The notion of change for an object-oriented philosopher presents the problem of vagueness (i.e. “vague” objects). If relations are not (fully) objects, e.g. the reality of vagueness is true, is real, then an object-oriented approach not only fails to make sense, it wouldn’t be justified. Why prefer the object over the relation as such? Why prefer the individuated and succinct over the coming-to be and vague? The analysis seems to compartmentalize the real rather than explain it in its most general terms.

    Just riffing here. But my main point is that this discussion seems to be pointing in the direction of how it is senseless to focus on relations only or to subsume everything under that category (which is what the charge “relationism” tries to do) – and it is pointless; but equally, why privileged some other ontological category? This violates the principle of ontological parity. Thus an equally as old question: if not relations, why parts? We seem to require both without reducing one term to the other. In stating that the answer to “Why objects?” is that this either a.) there is nothing but objects or b.) objects are all that I perceive is equally as reductive as it is pernicious.

    One thing that I enjoy about Whitehead’s (and Peirce’s, and Hartshorne’s, and Bergson’s) metaphysics is that each of them attempts to provide – in the words of Meillassoux – a “metaphysics of the Open.”

  5. Objects: Between Whitehead and Heidegger « Becoming Integral Avatar

    […] dimension of actuality.  Those claims are not without their merit, as indicated by a recent post by Matt Segall in defense Whitehead’s objects (contra Graham Harman and OOO).  However, at the end of the day, […]

  6. […] was lured into this post from my reading of two excellent blog posts: first, Matt Segall here, and Sam Mickey here. Matt Segall’s argument is with Graham Harman’s (here) statement: […]

  7. Phenomenology and Ontology: Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead, and the Flesh of the World | Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

    […] that Whitehead reduces individual occasions of experience to their global relations (HERE, HERE, HERE). Like Varela, who attempts to displace the old substantialist self with a more flexible conception […]

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