Adam Robbert on the ecology of ideas…
Since my post a few days ago (“The ‘innocence of becoming’: Nietzsche, Whitehead, and Nihilism as a Pathological Transitional Stage between Monism and Pluralism“), I’ve re-read chapter 4 of William Connolly’s The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (2013). Here is his summation of that chapter, which compared Nietzsche’s and Whitehead’s process philosophies:
“It must be emphasized that the positive spirituality Whitehead pours into his speculative philosophy is at least as affirmative as that of Nietzsche, and more consistently so. These two process philosophers are thus worthy protagonists from whom others can draw sustenance: they advance contending, overlapping cosmic creeds that speak to today; they address the spiritual quality through which a creed is lived in relation to others; and they throw up for grabs a set of established, complementary assumptions during a period when many constituencies both feel and suppress doubts about those assurances. Each, at his best, argues with the carriers of other creeds while inviting their proponents to fold positive spiritualities into their creedal relations…Nietzsche and Whitehead articulate the planetary and cosmic dimensions in diverse concepts and affective tones that also touch, though neither may have anticipated how densely planetary processes with differing degrees of self-organizing power are entangled today with local, regional, and global issues. Each expresses, in his inimical way, a spirit of deep attachment to a cosmos of dispersed, conditioned processes; each, if he were to confront the contemporary condition, might appreciate the potential contribution an ethos of existential gratitude forged across territories, constituencies, and existential creeds could make to addressing the fragility of things. Or so I project into the magisterial Whitehead and the agnostic Nietzsche. The task, merely launched here, is to draw selective sustenance from each to think our place in the cosmos, to come to terms with the fragility of things at local, regional, global, and planetary sites, and to fend off the existential resentment that threatens to become severe under late modern conditions” (176-178).
As you can see, Connolly counts Whitehead and Nietzsche as allies in his push for a pluralist ontopolitics. Even so, he levels several potentially devastating critiques. I wanted to focus on his attempt to “qualify” two of Whitehead’s most enigmatic categories: “God” and “eternal objects.” Donald Crosby also critiques these concepts in his own comparison of Nietzsche and Whitehead. Many browsers of Whitehead’s writings praise him for his concepts of “Creativity,” “prehension,” “actual occasion,” and “concrescence,” but want nothing whatsoever to do with what they perceive to be his gratuitous theological constructions, most infamously his dipolar creaturely “God” and his indeterminate and existentially deficient but always and everywhere “ingressing” “eternal objects.” Some scientific materialists have suggested that, if Whitehead’s conceptual scheme cannot survive the removal of its theological components, then it must be buried in the graveyard of history’s bold but mistaken philosophical systems. If Whitehead’s universe is really god-infused, the materialists say, then his speculative adventure in cosmology is for that reason also made irretrievably irrelevant for any modern, scientific, rational investigations of nature.
The problem with this assessment of Whitehead’s scheme, as I understand it, is that the story of modern scientific rationality and its technological mastery over matter has itself already been made irretrievably irrelevant by the planetary scale of the ecological crisis it helped to bring about. Nature is not at all like what the moderns thought she was. Her mechanical “laws” turn out to be more like organic tendencies–tendencies whose stability we, as living earthlings, are beginning to have the power (conscious or otherwise) to alter at genetic and geological scales. The supposedly secularized concept of Nature invented by Descartes, Spinoza, Newton, and Galileo proved to be utterly unprepared for the thermodynamic, electromagnetic, quantum, relativistic, and complexity revolutions of 19th and 20th century science. Nature can no longer be depoliticized, denuded of all subjective quality, moral and aesthetic value, and creative potency. Nature is more like a goddess than a machine.
Whitehead’s theology cannot be separated from his ontology. Or at the very least, Whitehead begs us to take seriously his philosophical commitment to avoiding granting God any unique magical powers not native to every other entity in the universe. God is not a separate type of entity, but a conditioned creature like every other actual entity. But at the same time, Whitehead insist on the necessity of God’s “unconditioned conceptual valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects” in order to secure the possibility of the ingression of relevant novelty into the experience of finite actual occasions:
“Apart from God, eternal objects unrealized in the actual world would be relatively non-existent for the concrescence in question. For effective relevance requires agency of comparison, and agency of comparison belongs exclusively to actual occasions” (Process and Reality, 31).
God’s primordial nature may in certain of Whitehead’s expressions seem “eternally fixed,” as Crosby complains (68). But when read in imaginative conjunction with what Whitehead has to say about God’s consequent nature, with the way God is itself conditioned by the creative advance of the actual universe, this fixity quickly dissolves into something that looks a lot like Nietzsche’s universe of “multiple interacting force fields ungoverned by an overriding center” (as described by Connolly in TFT, 168). Whitehead’s own variety of perspectival panexperientialism is more Hesiodian than Connolly acknowledges when he contrasts Nietzsche’s strong attraction to “the contending gods of Hesiod” with the magisterial Whitehead’s supposed preference for the settled order of eternal unity. “In Greek thought, either poetic or philosophic,” Whitehead writes, “the separation between physis and divinity had not that absolute character which it has for us who have inherited the Semitic Jehovah” (PR, 94). Whitehead praises Plato’s proto-evolutionary cosmological insight into what the ancient Greeks referred to as “subordinate deities who are the animating principles for [certain] departments of nature” (PR, 94). Whitehead’s scheme follows the Timaeus in describing
“the creation of the world [as] the incoming of a type of order establishing a cosmic epoch. It is not the beginning of matter of fact, but the incoming of a certain type of social order” (PR, 96).
The order of the universe is historically emergent and socially embedded, not an ex nihilo emanation out of the Eternal One. It is “incoming,” but not from somewhere else, some distant Eternal Realm separate from and prior to the creative advance of the actual universe. Eternal objects on their own (as pure potentials) are “deficient in actuality,” such that it is only ever as a result of the decision of some actual occasion that they have an effect on anything. New order is “incoming” only relative to the cosmic epoch which preceded it.
Connolly worries that Whitehead’s concept of God as a “[conveyer] of new levels of complexity into the future” ignores the fragility of human civilization and indeed the inescapable eventual demise of life on earth (TFT, 175). It is not clear to me that Whitehead’s categorical scheme requires the preservation of the complexity aroused by any particular cosmic epoch’s primordially evaluated potential. My sense is that each cosmic epoch has its own emergent divinity, or world-soul. Perhaps features of the order of past epochs are inherited by incoming world-souls; perhaps everything is lost in the apocalyptic transition form one epoch to the next. Whitehead’s scheme leaves this particular question open, it seems to me. Catastrophic dissociation is just as possible as enduring organization in Whitehead’s processual pluriverse.
Connolly is also concerned that Whitehead’s “doctrine of eternal objects reduces the scope of possible creativity in the world” (163). Terrence Deacon expressed a similar concern to me. On my reading, Whitehead introduces the concept of eternal objects specifically to make the experience of relevant novelty possible. Far from reducing the ingression of novelty into the universe, an actual occasion’s experience of pure potentiality provides the necessary condition for such creative ingression. If prehensions were simply physical (that is, related to past actual occasions), nothing new could ever happen. Nature would remain utterly repetitive. Further, without granting the reality of potenials alongside actualities, there would be no way to distinguish the future from the past. Time would be reversible and homogeneous, not creative. The creative evolution of the universe is made possible by the creative decisions of actual occasions who can conceptually prehend the physical past in some more or less significant way as other than it was. If physical prehensions relate to the settled facts of the past, conceptual prehensions relate to the formal possibilities of the future left open by these facts. As Heisenberg expressed it, the question is (as quoted by Connolly, p. 153), how does “a unique actuality evolve from a matrix of coexistent potenia?” Whitehead’s answer is that each actual occasion, via the process of concrescence, makes definite (or concrete) what had been indeterminate (or abstract), adding another fact of realized value to the ongoing evolution of this cosmic epoch.
As Connolly puts it, both Whitehead and Nietzsche call us to “stretch human capacities by artistic and experimental means so as to respond more sensitively to other force fields” (161). Whether or not the aesthetics of their respective process ontologies can finally be made to cohere remains an open question for me. It seems at this point that Nietzsche’s preference for an “eternal return” of the same runs up against the more open-ended creativity enshrined in Whitehead’s scheme: “No thinker thinks twice” (PR, 29).
As I discussed in my first post, Nietzsche is suspicious of the concept of teleology; but Whitehead’s reformed concept of final causation links it to Nietzsche’s own favorite concept: power. For Whitehead, the concept of power entails both efficient and final causation, where its efficient aspect provides the objective “ground of obligation” inherited by new actual occasions, and its final aspect is the “internal principle of unrest” (PR, 29) expressed by the concrescence of each occasion. Actual occasions do not wield power like a subjective capacity, designing their behavior as if from beyond it. Power is not the capacity of a subject, but the capacity resultant in a subject. Whitehead completely abandons “the notion of an actual entity as the unchanging subject of change.” Instead, “an actual entity is at once the subject experiencing and the superject of its experiences” (PR, 29). In this sense, Whitehead’s re-formed teleology is immanent, self-organizing, and self-implicating. It retains nothing of old concept of teleology related to transcendently imposed design, where the Creator stands clearly and distinctly apart from its creation.