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

Shaviro on Harman and Whitehead: Process- vs. Object-Oriented Philosophies


Harman credits Whitehead for being one of the few daring philosophers “to venture beyond the human sphere” (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 190). Both thinkers share a commitment to anthrodecentrism. They de-center the human by insisting upon a flat ontology, a theory of Being wherein every being exemplifies the same set of metaphysical categories, whether that being be God, or human, or “the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Process and Reality, 18). There are no special exceptions in ontology, no “highest being” exempt from reality’s rules (or from reality’s unruliness). Whitehead was already explicit about the need to avoid paying metaphysical compliments to an ontologically exceptional being. Similarly, he sought to untwist the Kantian reversal that made the special cognitive and perceptual modes of access typical of conscious human beings into the transcendental condition underlying relations of all types. On Whitehead’s reading, Kant privileged perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” and ignored or at least sidelined the deeper and more ontologically relevant perceptual mode of “causal efficacy.” “Presentational immediacy” displays reality in a way amenable to representational analysis, showing only the more or less clear and distinct surfaces of the world as they are presented to a reflective subject here and now. It is the end product of a complex process of unconscious prehensive unification in our organism and nervous system. “Causal efficacy” unfolds behind the scenes of this Cartesian theater in the unrepresentable depths of reality, carrying vague emotional vectors from the past into the present. Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is punctual (hence its relative clarity and distinctness); perception in the mode of causal efficacy is transitional (hence its vagueness). Presentational immediacy allows for intentional consciousness, the subjective capacity for attentional directedness toward the eidos of objects; causal efficacy, in contrast, is prehensional, the presubjective capacity to inherit the affective influences of objects. The former mode requires that a mind remain at a distance from things, relating to their essence rather than sensing their causal presence, while the latter implies the internalization of things, the intimate assimilation of their past being into our present becoming. Whitehead’s alchemical distillation of consciousness reveals an experiential structure even deeper than intentionality, a ontologically basic level of experience shared in by all relational beings. If anything is transcendental, it is not human intentionality (as Kant argued), but cosmic prehensionality. As Harman puts it, Whitehead made it possible for us to “speak in the same way of the relation between humans and what they see and that between hailstones and tar” (Prince of Networks, 124).

As Shaviro makes clear, Whitehead’s concept of “prehension” is meant to include both causal and perceptual relations (The Universe of Things, 29). He invented the concept in an attempt to subvert the bifurcation of nature between mental images and material impacts, between nature as it appears before us (“the dream”) and nature as it is thought to be the cause of appearance (“the conjecture”). Prehension allows us to envision, again in Harman’s words, “a world in which the things really do perceive each other” and are not just perceived by us (GM, 52).

The prehensional basis of all object-relations implies that “detached, self-contained local existence” (i.e., simple location) is impossible, since in each act of prehension “the environment enters into the nature of” the prehending thing. This is not to say that things have prehension as a capacity; rather, in Whitehead’s scheme, a thing or actual entity is a momentary unification of multiple prehensions. Actual entities do not have prehensions (as when substantial minds are said to have accidental perceptions); rather, they are prehensions. It is regarding the issue of the interrelation of all things that Whitehead and Harman begin to part ways. While Whitehead defends an image of the universe as a creatively evolving nexus of interpenetrating events, Harman paints the picture of “a universe packed full of elusive substances stuffed into mutually exclusive vacuums” (GM, 76). Shaviro neatly sums up the disagreement: “Whitehead opposes correlationism [and anthropocentrism] by proposing  a much broader–indeed universally promiscuous–sense of relations among entities,” while “Harman opposes correlationism by deprivileging relations in general” (tUoT, 30).

Harman rejects Whitehead’s relationalism for two reasons: 1) he worries it reduces ontology to “a house of mirrors” wherein, because a thing just is a unification of its prehensions of other things, there is never finally any there there beneath its internal reflections of others; and 2) he claims that an ontology based exclusively on internal relations, wherein entities are said to hold nothing in reserve beyond their present prehensional relation to the universe, cannot account for change or novelty. In such a universe, there would be “no external point of purchase from which structure could be transformed,” as Levi Bryant puts it (The Democracy of Objects, 209). As Shaviro is quick to point out, however, Whitehead was well aware of this potential objection (see page 35 of PR, for example), which is exactly why he amended his ontology sometime between his final editing of Science and the Modern World (1925) and Process and Reality (1929) so that becoming was understood to be atomic rather than continuous. A fair reading of Whitehead’s mature metaphysical scheme should acknowledge (despite a few inconsistent statements here and there) that his goal was to strike some balance between internal and external relations, precisely for the reasons put forward by Harman and Bryant.

In response to Harman’s first worry regarding an infinite regress of prehensions, I’d call his bluff and say that a truly aesthetic ontology (which he also claims to be seeking) would leave us with just such an infinite regress of appearances. A thing’s “style” or “allure” doesn’t need to be understood as emanating from some substantial core or fixed essence; we can also understand a thing’s “style” as Whitehead does in terms of the “enduring characteristic” realized by a historical route of actual occasions. There is nothing hidden from view by such outward qualities other than the occasion in question’s moment-to-moment subjective enjoyment of these characteristics. Which brings us to Harman’s second (I believe unfounded) worry about relational reductionism. Whitehead’s dipolar account of the process of experiential realization includes both a public moment of display and a private moment of withdrawal. Every drop of experience begins by taking up the “objectively immortal” data of its past. It then unifies this data into its own singular and private perspective on the world. It is this moment of privacy that most closely resembles Harman’s doctrine of withdrawal. The occasion in question is in this moment entirely independent of its relations. But as soon as this private, never before experienced perspective on reality is realized, it perishes into objective immortality, becoming publicly available for the next occasion of experience to inherit as it moves toward its own novel concrescent realization. “The many become one, and are increased by one.” Whitehead is able to make sense of change and novelty while at the same time preserving a non-reductive account of internal relations. It seems to me that Harman’s insistence on the irrelevance of evolutionary time for ontology is part of the reason he is unable to make sense of Whitehead’s attempted compromise (“The ontological structure of the world does not evolve…which is precisely what makes it an ontological structure” [GM, 24]). In effect, Whitehead’s entire process ontology can be understood as an imaginative generalization of evolutionary theory.

This difference regarding the metaphysical status of evolutionary time represents a deep divide between Whitehead’s and Harman’s otherwise similar ontologies. Shaviro, following Stengers (who was following Deleuze), reminds us that “the concepts a philosopher produces depend on the problems to which he or she is responding” (tUoT, 33). It seems as though the deep divide between Harman’s ontology of vacuum sealed objects and Whitehead’s ontology of interrelated organisms comes down to a question of taste. There is no going behind aesthetic taste to find some more rational justification to prefer one account over the other. As Fichte put it in his Wissenshaftslehre (although in the context of morality and not aesthetics), the kind of philosophy one adopts ultimately depends on the kind of person one is. Harman’s personal problem is to account for how relation is possible in a universe of vacuous actualities, while Whitehead’s was to account for how individuality is possible in a universe of interpenetrating actualities.

In the spirit of attaining to some wider point of view inclusive of both perspectives, Shaviro sums up the situation thusly:

“Harman’s difference from Whitehead, and his creative contribution to speculative philosophy, consists in the ‘translation’ of the deep problems of essence and change from one realm (that of relations) to another (that of substances). These two realms, oddly enough, seem interchangeable–at least in an overall anticorrelationist framework. Given that ‘there is no such thing as transport without transformation,’ the only remaining question is what sort of difference Harman’s transformation of ontology makes” (tUoT, 41).

Given the state of our present world, wherein “we are continually beset by relations, smothered and suffocated by them…where all manners of cultural expression are digitally transcoded and electronically disseminated, where genetic material is freely recombined, and where matter is becoming open to direct manipulation on the atomic and subatomic scales,” Whitehead’s problematic appears more and more relevant to our actual condition (tUoT, 33, 42).




15 responses to “Shaviro on Harman and Whitehead: Process- vs. Object-Oriented Philosophies”

  1. sam Avatar

    This is great, Matt. I haven’t read the book yet, but your reviews of Shaviro are enticing previews. I appreciate your mention of the Metaphysics and Things conference in Claremont way back in 2010. The Shaviro-Harman debate was one of the best philosophical discussions I’ve ever seen. The whole room was electric. Along those lines, I remember that Harman was pretty clear in his rejection of someone’s rebuttal that Whiteheadian privacy does the work of Heideggerian withdrawal. A private perspective is a self-relation, not a non-relation. In Faber’s paper, he suggested that creativity was a closer approximation to withdrawal (I respond to Faber’s paper in my book). Also, I don’t know if Harman ever says that “evolutionary time” (as you put it) is irrelevant to ontology. I thought his quadruple object included time as the tension between sensual objects and sensual qualities. Time is the change or development of enduring substances. Maybe Harman’s is not an evolutionary ontology, but neither is it an ontology for which evolutionary time is simply irrelevant. I’m a little out of the loop though…maybe I missed something where Harman said explicitly that evolution, time, or evolutionary time has nothing to do with ontology. It wouldn’t be the craziest idea.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Hey Sam,

      Yeah I really appreciate the way Harman and Shaviro are able to constructively critique one another without it becoming personal. Why isn’t this the norm in speculative realism? Or do you think there is an important role for polemic in philosophy?

      As for Harman’s rebuttal about Whiteheadian privacy not doing the work of Heideggarian withdrawal, if withdrawal is supposed to do the work of irretrievably vacuum sealing an entity’s essence from all sensual relations, then this seems like a fair enough statement to me. But of course Whitehead is not trying to irretrievably remove an entity from its relations, even when he speaks about an entity’s privacy. An entity only enjoys a moment of subjective privacy before it perishes to become public food for the enjoyment of further entities. That said, I don’t think it is correct to say that Whiteheadian entities are self-related in their momentary privacy. A self-relation would need to be constructed by at least two serially ordered actual occasions, the latter prehending the former as its immediate past.

      Harman does state rather bluntly that evolutionary time is irrelevant to ontology (I quote him in ‘Guerrilla Metaphysics’ above). He has a place for time in his fourfold ontology, but as I understand it, the changes associated with time are merely accidental, not essential. I’m after an ontology that gives an essential role to historical becoming.

      1. sam Avatar

        I’m not sure about the role of polemic in philosophy or in speculative realism specifically. I certainly wouldn’t strongly attack polemic. A Heraclitean recovery of polemos could probably ignite something new in polemic. In any case, I think one can be polemical without committing ad hominem fallacies.

        I appreciate the point about privacy. I remember Levi Bryant making the point that Whitehead’s concept of subjective form is the nearest Whiteheadian approximation to withdrawal, and subjective form is what constitutes privacy. I’m going to look that up: “…private side is constituted by the subjective form…” (Process and Reality, 290).

        Maybe “self-relation” is the wrong word, but it’s not very different from the terms Whitehead uses: “purposed self-creation” (p. 289). That works for Bryant, but Harman’s withdrawal is not quite the same as Bryant’s more Deleuzian virtual proper being. Heidegger was always against the very idea of subjectivity. Withdrawing from presence at hand (Vorhandenheit) is not the same as withdrawing from publicity into subjectivity or self-creation. It’s more like withdrawing from the very metaphysics of presence that determines the being of the private and the public. It harbors a readiness for privacy and publicity, a readiness that cannot be grasped theoretically at all. I think Faber’s point is that Whiteheadian withdrawal is more about creativity than privacy, which is to say, Whiteheadian withdrawal isn’t in the purposed self-creation of actual entities but is in the creativity of their purposed self-creation.

        In the Guerilla Metaphysics quote you mention, Harman didn’t say that evolution is irrelevant to ontology. He said that ontological structure doesn’t evolve. Does Whitehead say differently? 5 billion years ago, there was the same ontological structure we have today, something involving prehensions and eternal objects and space and time and creativity…. Even if evolutionary dynamics go to very core of being, the structure according to which that’s the case does not evolve.

        You’re right that time is accidental and not essential for Harman, but not merely accidental (it’s about the tension between an intentional object and its accidents). After all, he’s a Heideggerian, not a Kantian. Ontology is phenomenological for Heidegger; the essential is accidental. For Harman, time is internal to real objects insofar as each real object is composed of other objects (regressus ad infinitum), which produce sensual relations (including time) on the inside of the real object they compose. Alright, well, I officially need to read Harman’s Quadruple Object and Shaviro’s Universe before I keep saying ridiculous things.

  2. mary9macrina Avatar

    “What Harman’s ontology does, then, can be thought of as a “detemporalization” or “deprocessification” of Whitehead’s ontology. The temporality of Harman’s objects is taken out of the definition of what constitutes an object; whereas with Whitehead, the temporality is constitutive of every object, that is, every actual occasion.” ……a quote from an article that helped me much. ( http://www.parrhesiajournal.org/parrhesia19/parrhesia19_ivakhiv.pdf ) As an aside, I am enjoying these blogs immensely! I am deeply trusting in such an ecology of concepts that continually expresses and flows. When Shaviro says that problems of relations and substances seem interchangeable, I felt the appropriateness of Adam Robbert’s comment when he said ecology is the breakdown between structure and content. http://knowledge-ecology.com/2014/10/07/ecological-metaphysics/ …….from there it is an easy leap to view Harman’s “vacuum sealed” objects as untenable in a fundamentally ecological cosmos. I am fascinated to watch the evolving coherence within this discussion. It’s truly lovely. Of late I have spent many hours in the hospital and then nursing home where my mother is recovering from her open heart surgery, and it has been wonderful to engage mentally with your blog, Matt, and so many others. Thank you!

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Greetings, Mary. I’m glad my blog posts are proving stimulating for you. Thanks for linking to Ivakhiv’s paper. I look forward to reading it. Best wishes to you and yours. -Matt

  3. Philip Avatar

    I think that’s the most even handed assessment of Harman’s work that I’ve seen to date. I must read the book!

  4. efmooney Avatar

    This is tremendous stuff !! Your writing and thinking are clear as a bell — this is a novice [to speculative realism and Whitehead] speaking, but trust me nevertheless !!
    I’ve been writing on Thoreau’s challenge to the Cartesian tradition. He’s not a systematic thinker but piles up his insights and you get a powerful critique that succeeds by just starting elsewhere and not giving a damn. He got that line I discuss on my yesterday’s blog, “All Intelligences awake with the dawn,” from the Gita (he and Emerson were amazed at “oriental thought”) and I’m convinced that the “Intelligences” he refers to are the little packets of energy or radiance or eloquence that animate all things — birds, stars, mountain air and mountain peaks, the crash of thunder, etc etc. These centers of Zap! wake up with the sun and wake us up too. Anyway, they radiate whether we’re around to know it or not. Our consciousness of them is irrelevant to the wonder that they are.

    1. efmooney Avatar

      . . . that should be “pile up his insights”

    2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I like that connection to Thoreau. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. […] post on the subject led me to Matthew David Segall’s discussion at Footnotes 2 Plato of “Shaviro on Harman and Whitehead: Process- vs. Object-Oriented Philosophies.” Mr. Segall bites the bullet on an infinite relational regress in ontology, championing […]

  6. S.C. Hickman Avatar

    I’ve always admired your tenaciousness, great reading! What’s always interesting from a materialist perspective (mine) is the battles among “substantialist” and “process” philosophers. Both Whitehead and Harman share aspects of the older ontological frameworks, but as you’ve pointed out take on in their difference the shades of relations and eidos, choosing in Whitehead to favor relations over eidos, and in Harmon eidos over relations, etc.

    And then you have the various materialisms vying over chaos and the pre-relational and pre-ontological. Strange how all these various systems from Deleuze-Braidotti-Bennett-Barad “vibrant matter or agential realism”; scientific naturalism; and dialectical materialism, etc.

    I’ve begun thinking that we need a philosophy that encompasses both sides of the equation: it’s as if in philosophy we’re playing out what scientists have for a hundred years been doing in physics: the battle between quantum and relativity, the one based on preontological realm of flux, the other on the micro/macro worlds we inhabit as process/ontology. Until we can encompass both sides of the equation in a larger framework that is both open and changing, or evolving we will remain in a state of war all against all. Don’t you think it is time philosophy begins overhauling all these smaller frames of reference. It’s as if what we need is another Hegel to pull all these various pre-ontological and ontological and processual notions into a larger overarching and systematic framework?

    Anyway thanks for the great view onto the processual/ontological debates…

    Have you read Tom Sparrow’s and Peter Gratton’s books, too?

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Craig. I am all for trying to find the widest window pane/reference frame to look through that can integrate as much as possible into one view, but at the same time I have to acknowledge the limits of systemization. I’m a process philosopher and a pluralist, after all. I don’t think another Hegel will do justice to the needs of our moment. The closest thing we have so far as I can tell is Ken Wilber. Problem is none of the thinkers he claimed to have sublated agree with his characterization of their work. Any anyway, if you think Wilber is a charlatan, then we’ve already got the real Hegel. If you want a Grand System, why not just become a Hegelian? Has all that much really changed regarding good ol’ metaphysics since 1807? As Foucault put it so well (I summarize), so many philosophers after Hegel have tried to escape his dialectical grip with all their might, only to find him waiting just around the next corner every time they thought they’d broken free.

      Then again, perhaps the first critique of Hegel (I mean Schelling’s) was the best, the most intimate, the most devastating (not just to Hegel, but to Reason itself). Have you read Schelling’s Freedom essay (1809)? Heidegger treated it as the self-overcoming of German Idealism from the inside out, as the most thoroughgoing demolition of Hegel’s project one could ask for.

      What we need, in the wake of the return of what Modernity has for too long repressed (Schelling’s unprethinkable, the eternal past of an unruly Nature) is more to cultivate a family of post-nihlistic integrative theoretical and practical attitudes or styles that, despite their diversity, are nonetheless able and willing to participate in reconstructing a livable image of our pluriverse/world-in-process. So not a system so much as a style, a method, a way of doing thinking and thinking doing that is open to what cannot be thought until it has been lived through. This is Schelling’s “metaphysical empiricism.”

  7. […] Whitehead distinguishes between “presentational immediacy” (punctual perception) and “causal efficacy” (transitional perception).  To clarify these terms, let’s visit a brilliant passage (presenting Shaviro’s response to Harman’s critique of process philosophy) from Matthew David Segall’s blog, footnotes2plato: […]

  8. The Purpose and Profundity of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (a reply to Massimo Pigliucci) – Footnotes2Plato Avatar

    […] punch totally misses its target, as Whitehead’s is clearly a “flat ontology,” in that it aims to describe all levels of emergent complexity in nature in the same general […]

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