Phenomenology and Process Ontology: Evan Thompson, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead, and the Growing Together of the Flesh of the World

I had a friendly exchange yesterday with the cognitive scientist and philosopher Evan Thompson about his debate earlier this year with another cognitive scientist Owen Flanagan. The two distinguished thinkers disagreed about whether physicalism as currently understood can provide an adequate account of consciousness. I wanted to revisit several of the themes Evan and I discussed in our comment exchange. I suggested in a comment that, while I agree the transcendental/phenomenological perspective provides a knock-down argument against any sort of objectivist explanation of subjectivity, I’m not as certain that, having laid such dogmatism to bed, Husserlian phenomenology is capable of helping us re-construct a less naive, more robust form of ontological realism (although I do try to push the late Husserl toward such realism in this paper on ecophenomenology).

Maybe Evan isn’t as interested as I am in a post-transcendental attempt at realism. I have a lot of sympathy for the more constructivist enactive paradigm he, Francisco Varela, and Eleanor Rosch first articulated in The Embodied Mind (1993). But since my fateful encounter with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead [which occurred just about the same time I was reading Evan’s next book, Mind in Life (2007)], I realized I needed to think constructivism ontologically, rather than epistemologically. Which is to say, I needed to think being as a process of self-construction, rather than being constructed by thought.

Now to be fair, as I understand the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy that Varela and Thompson draw upon in their articulation of enactivism, nothing is to prevent us from interpreting the “dependent co-arising” of all things in ontological terms. Whitehead himself acknowledged that in certain respects his “process-relational” ontology bears more resemblance to certain stains of Indian and Buddhist than to Western thought (see Process and Reality, pgs. 244, 342-343). For Whitehead, every actual occasion of experience is internally related to every other actual occasion. This means that there is nothing in the universe that can exist independently of anything else (for Whitehead, this includes even God). Everything there is emerges in concert with everything else. On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly argued against the over-simplification 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 of an emergent “virtual selfhood” or “subject-pole” (as he describes it in this paper just before his untimely death in 2002), Whitehead articulates individuality in terms of the “subjective form” of each occasion–an occasion’s unique feeling-toned concern for and response to the data it receives from the past occasions out of which it emerges. In this sense there is a lot of overlap between a process ontology and enactivism.

Here is what Evan had to say in a comment under my last post about his debate with Owen Flanagan:

…in my own work I follow the trajectory that arises in the later Husserl and continues in Merleau-Ponty, and that calls for a rethinking of the concept of “nature” in a post-physicalist way—one that doesn’t conceive of fundamental nature or physical being in a way that builds in the objectivist idea that such being is intrinsically or essentially non-experiential. But, again, this point doesn’t entail that nature is intrinsically or essentially experiential (this is the line that panpsychists and Whiteheadians take). (Maybe it is, but I don’t think we’re now in position to know that.) All I want to say for now (or think I have grounds for saying now) is that we can see historically how the concept of nature as physical being got constructed in an objectivist way, while at the same time we can begin to conceive of the possibility of a different kind of construction that would be post-physicalist and post-dualist–that is, beyond the divide between the “mental” (understood as not conceptually involving the physical) and the “physical” (understood as not conceptually involving the mental). This is what I had in mind when I invoked “neutral monism” or “neutral non-dualism” in the exchange with Owen.

Evan also mentioned that he plans to read Isabelle Stengers‘ recently translated book Thinking With Whitehead, at which point he’ll have a better sense for exactly what prevents him from following Whitehead all the way. I look forward to his reflections on that front. For now, I’m encouraged by his invocation of “neutral monism,” a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had a tremendous impact on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of some substratum of “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s own brand of panexperientialism.

I’ll leave you with this lecture by David Kleinberg-Levin on Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, including his understanding of the elemental flesh of the world. Thinking with Whitehead, I’d argue, can help us follow the late Merleau-Ponty’s desire not only to unify the mind with the flesh of the body, but mind and body with the flesh of the world. In this way, as Levin puts it, things become a prolongation of my body, just as my body becomes a prolongation of the world. (The authors of the recently published Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought agree with the tremendous potential for cross-fertilization of these two thinkers).


22 Replies to “Phenomenology and Process Ontology: Evan Thompson, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead, and the Growing Together of the Flesh of the World”

    1. Well, that is a good question that I’d have to defer to Evan on. But I think both he and Varela follow the development of the Kantian tradition to its culmination in embodied phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh), while Whitehead tries to go back to Kant and subvert his basic assumptions. For example, Whitehead says his process ontology is an attempt to construct a “critique of pure feeling” in place of Kant’s “critique of pure reason.” I’d say that something very similar ended up happening from within the Kantian tradition itself: the transformation of Kant’s approach by Merleau-Ponty could be described as a transition from disembodied reason as epistemically foundational to embodied feeling as epistemically foundational. So Whitehead and the embodied phenomenologists end up converging in the end, which is why I claim there is so much overlap. But I suppose what makes Evan hesitant about claiming that the relations between even the most fundamental physical entities are somehow experiential is that this overshoots the limitations placed on human knowing by Kant. From my point of view (following Kant’s immediate predecessors, especially Schelling, and of course Whitehead), Kant prematurely limited our capacity to know the world intuitively. But even Kant, in his last writings before death (published as the “Opus Posthumus”), acknowledged that we do have intuitive access to the interiority of nature, since we ourselves, as natural beings, have immediate access to our own interiority. Kant’s late re-consideration of the limitations his earlier critiques had placed on knowledge may indeed have been a result of Schelling’s influence. In his earliest writings on the philosophy of nature (~1797), Schelling wrote:

      “So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”

      1. “But I suppose what makes Evan hesitant about claiming that the relations between even the most fundamental physical entities are somehow experiential is that this overshoots the limitations placed on human knowing by Kant”

        Are you really of the mind that his thoughts are actively inhibited by the assumptions of a philosopher long dead? That his position has more to do with tradition than many hours of thought, feeling, and reflection?

        In his reply to you, he suggested he felt Whitehead might have overstepped the boundary of what one can claim about nature ‘in itself’. What method, specifically, do you use to overcome or sidestep this seeming phenomenological uncertainty?

  1. Joe,

    No, as I said, I really need to defer to Evan for his reasoning here. My further reflections above are just an expression of what I think might be at stake here. I don’t think anyone who takes the history of philosophy seriously is necessarily “inhibited” by tradition; rather, I’d say this tradition is what provides the conditions for the possibility of further thought. None of us think in a vacuum as though from scratch. Unlike in some specialized sciences, where one goes to grad school to learn the most recently published cutting edge text books in their field, philosophy (at least continental thought, if not the analytic school, which often tries to mimic natural science) is mostly the history of philosophy.

    I don’t think we should try to overcome or sidestep phenomenological uncertainty. The uncertainty will always remain. I’ve never argued for a philosophical method like Descartes’ where the goal is some final certainty based on the irrefutability of some system of supposedly clear and distinct ideas. But my desire for a “post-transcendental realism” as I called it above arises from the fact that we as thinkers necessarily interact with the real world, even if we can never know it fully. I think the ecological crisis is an example of what happens when our ontology, whether implicit or not, conflicts with the nature of reality itself. So in light of this crisis, I think it is important to try to unpack, as explicitly as we can manage, a more appropriate ontology. So my method would be something like the alchemical hermeneutics articulated by Romanyshyn (see or the logic of sense articulated by John Sallis (see, both of which I think are very much in line with what David Kleinberg-Levin is saying in the lecture above. None of these methods pretend to certainty, but remain situated in a world of creative becoming where, precisely because we are active participants in that becoming, we can never pretend to objective knowledge of it.

  2. Matthew,

    Would strongly recommend that you take a look at a paper by Lars Marstaller in the journal Concrescence if you have not already:

    in which he proposes a neurophenomenological approach in which Whiteheadian process-based panexperientialism substitutes for the Merleau-Ponty version of Husserlian phenomenology. I think it is a very interesting proposal and potentially quite productive and helpful, I think. It brings Whitehead process-relational philosophy into a neuroscientific brain-mind framework and places it into the context of what might be considered to be Whitehead-inspired Relational Realism as suggested by Michael Epperson.

    I sent this paper to Professor Thompson, but did not get much of a reply back from him. Interested to hear that he plans to read Isabelle Stenger’s book and perhaps re-consider.

    I would be very interested in your thoughts on this paper and its implications.



      1. Great book! Sitting on my bedside table for regular reading. The integration of Whitehead process-relational thought and neuroscientific investigation is a huge and fascinating frontier yet to be fully explored. The Marstaller paper sets up an interesting framework in which neuroscience investigations can actually be significantly advanced, I think. What is egregiously missing, though, in this framework, I would argue, is a sufficient appreciation for ethics which is critical in a post-modern synthesis, I think, in a modern world where efficient killing of human beings has become fun and games, and wanton destruction of our natural habitat the way that we grow our economies. There is plenty of love of wisdom, but no nearly enough wisdom of love.

  3. Another point is that Whitehead was deeply influenced by the new physics and particularly quantum mechanics including the Principle of Complementarity, which, it can be argued is the direct result of the deep entanglement of knowledge and action in the context of a “reflective pragmatism”. I love how Neils Bohr talked about this in terms of how “we are both actors and spectators on the great stage of life” which creates a fundamental paradox that lies at the heart of human existence. If we assume that quantum physics is a more accurate understanding of the natural world and its material nature as it is accessible to human beings than is Newtonian mechanics than we really have a completely new paradigm for materialism and for comprehending naturalism, one that must incorporate this fundamental paradox out of which the conceptual (spectator) and the physical (actor) emerge.

  4. Kant and Husserl were not up to speed on Einstein and Bohr and Planck et al in terms of getting beyond Newtonian mechanics and beyond clockwork mechanism in the “eye-of-God” paradigm, but Whitehead clearly was! In fact, there is a story that Whitehead and Einstein actually had the occasion to meet each other at some point in London at least as told to me by Ronnie Desmet, a Brussels-based mathematician and philosopher who I had the great pleasure of meeting at the home of Jason Brown in the little town of Fontareches in the south of France back at the beginning of April at the meeting of the Whiteheadian Psychology Nexus.

  5. The other thing this relates to and you do hint at it in your discussion, Matthew, is the question of a totalizing scheme rather than an open, non-totalizing understanding. In fact, both Goedel’s Theorem as well as the Uncertainty Principle give us a bit of a hint that an attempt to totalize with reasoned thought is just totally messed up and futile. And, worse than that, leads inevitably to violence and war when we attempt to totalize the Other in thought. All this discussion of totalization comes directly out of the work of such metaphysically oriented philosophers as Kierkegaard and Levinas.who rail against the inherent drive to totalize and take it “to the limit”. What is very cool about Whiteheadian process-relational thought, as I see it, is that it is inherently non-totalizing because of the element of Creativity that is the well-spring of uncertainty and surprise in the moment which lies outside the reach and influence of both temporal actual occasions and the non-temporal Actual Occasion.

  6. And that same idea of being both the actor and the spectator relates directly, I think, to your quote from Schelling which is really magnificent, I think. We are actors who are a necessarily concretely engaged inherent component of the natural world, but we also are knowledge-seeking spectators who must separate ourselves out to the third-person “God’s-eye” perspective to be able to abstract from our concrete experience and generalize. This is the paradox at the heart of reflective pragmatism. We have the capacity to act and perceive but we also have the capacity to reflect on our actions and perceptions. We are both but one could argue that it is actually impossible to be actually be both truly “inside” and “outside” in the very same moment.

  7. Yes, I do have that book, Matthew. It sits on my bedside table. I have to admit that I have not read through the whole book at this point, but I think there is a great deal of interesting material there including a interesting article related to my own personal work with treatment of traumatic brain injury. There is another new book related to all of this in relationship to our general approach to understanding living organisms called “Beyond Mechanism” edited by Brian Henning and Adam Scarfe that is another collection of essays that are directly relevant to this discussion. What has become very exciting to me currently is the relationship between the phenomenological ethics of Levinas and the pragmatic process-relational philosophy and metaphysics of Whitehead. I think there is much to be gained by looking at a synergistic merging of the insights inherent in the writing of these two great 20th century thought leaders.

  8. Hey Matt. Thanks for another excellent overview of the overlapping of ontology and epistemology, Just for your own information, I did my MA Thesis (1996) on Merleau-Ponty’s idea of “Reversibility” investigating how in a phenomenological sense the flesh of our being and the flesh of the world are both reversible “productions” (or reproductioins) of each other. I never made the ecological connection however, so thanks again for that lecture by David Kleinberg-Levin, that was brilliant! It’s always great to see a philosopher like Heraclites “reincarnated” with significance.
    Also ordered “Nature and Logos” and I’m looking forward to gaining an appreciation of the connection between Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty. You are way ahead of me on that score Matt.

  9. Pingback: Footnotes 2 Plato

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