Retrieving Realism: A Whiteheadian Wager

The following is the first second third fourth draft (as of 7/19/2016) of an essay I am submitting to the journal World Futures after being asked to review Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor’s Retrieving Realism (2015). I post it here in the hopes that the final published version will benefit from your comments and feedback (thanks especially to Peter Sjöstedt-H for his feedback). Note that footnotes are not included in the blog version. Click here for the PDF version.

Retrieving Realism: A Whiteheadian Wager

By Matthew David Segall, PhD

June 2016

California Institute of Integral Studies


“‘Who was the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century whose name begins with W?’ Most learned people in America would answer ‘Wittgenstein.’ Sorry. The right answer is ‘Whitehead’—another philosopher…who is vastly more daring, and also, unfortunately, much less studied. Among his many misfortunes, Alfred North Whitehead…suffers from the terrible stigma of having indulged in metaphysics, something one is no longer supposed to do after the edicts of the first “W,” even though those who think that metaphysics is passé know usually much less science than Whitehead and swallow—without an ounce of criticism—hook, line, and sinker the entirety of metaphysical beliefs about nature that one can easily derive by lumping together the least-common-denominator views of geneticists and so-called cognitive scientists.”

-Bruno Latour, Foreword to Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead



The essay to follow is both a review of Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor’s Retrieving Realism (2015) as well as an attempt to broaden their conversation by interpolating the voice of another retriever of realism: Alfred North Whitehead. Like Dreyfus and Taylor, Whitehead sought to heal the modern epistemic wound hewn between the soul and the world in order to put human beings back into meaningful contact with reality. My hope is that Whitehead’s angle of approach provides a helpful contribution to Dreyfus and Taylor’s project.
In their short text, Dreyfus and Taylor revisit a series of conversations they began with the late Richard Rorty (among others) in an effort to work out a realistic compromise between the objective knowledge claimed by modern scientific materialism and the moral and spiritual values defended by deep humanism. Dreyfus and Taylor’s aim is commendable, and many of their arguments (both critical and constructive) are sound, but in the end I argue that their approach falls short. After a summary review of what is at stake in each chapter of Retrieving Realism, I go on to argue that Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy of organism (especially when viewed as an extension of William James’ radical empiricism) offers a more robust and coherent retrieval of reality than the unsteady compromise between scientific objectivity and deep humanism attempted by Dreyfus and Taylor.
Chapter Summary

This brief summary is meant to orient readers to Dreyfus and Taylor’s basic argument so as to facilitate comprehension of my Whiteheadian response in the second half of this essay. Though their book is short, its pages are dense with detailed argumentation that rewards careful reading.
In Chapter 1, Dreyfus and Taylor begin by retracing the history of modern European philosophy in order to uncover the wrong turn that led our culture into a distorted understanding of knowledge and reality. Not surprisingly, it is René Descartes who takes much of the blame. Dreyfus and Taylor remind their readers that Descartes’ skeptical, dualistic distortion of our human condition—what they refer to as the “mediational” theory of knowledge—is of far more than merely theoretical interest, since this framework is directly responsible for generating the contradictory ethical, existential, and (a)theological commitments characteristic of modernity. The distorted mediational theory has condemned modern people to experience themselves as “divided beings needing to be healed” (RR, 26). As first articulated by Descartes, the mediational theory is based upon the foundational assumption that mind is entirely separate from matter, and that mind therefore gains knowledge of external matter only through its own internal representations or ideas. Dreyfus and Taylor refer to this original form of mediationalism as “representationalist,” but they are careful to note that this “much refuted” paradigm is only one among a variety of mediational theories all sharing the same “deeper topology” (RR, 3). One of the key features distinguishing this deeper topology is the “‘only through’ structure”: our mind or organism’s epistemic access to external nature comes only through structures endogenous to the mind or organism (RR, 10). Other variants of mediationalism include Immanuel Kant’s critical turn, which although it re-imagines the meaning of “inner” and “outer” still enforces the “only through” structure and the gap between knowledge and reality; Willard Quine’s materialist turn, which denies the existence of “mind” and claims scientific knowledge of nature comes instead to the “brain” only through sensory receptors; Rorty’s linguistic turn, which claims that knowledge comes only through intersubjective agreement between publicly expressed sentences; and finally the computational turn, which claims that the brain acts as a kind of “hardware” supporting the mind as its “software” operating system, with knowledge coming only through the internal processing of external information (RR, 3, 4, 15).
Chapter 1 also introduces Dreyfus and Taylor’s alternative to mediationalism, which they refer to as a “contact theory” of knowledge. Their contact theory aims to provide us with an unmediated grip on reality, but without falling prey to an overly simplistic naïve realism. Dreyfus and Taylor sympathetically summarize the ancient contact epistemologies of Plato and Aristotle, admitting, however, that these original contact theories are ultimately insufficient. According to Dreyfus and Taylor, despite their admirable sophistication, the theories of Plato and Aristotle have become ontologically implausible as a result of modern scientific materialism’s dismissal of the sort of “cosmically embedded teleology” presupposed by ancient philosophers. They turn instead to the modern contact theories of Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, theories which do not rely upon any cosmic teleology but instead rest upon thick descriptions of our more down to earth “primordial and indissoluble involvement in…reality” (RR, 18).
Dreyfus and Taylor close Chapter 1 by acknowledging the important ethical motivations for the mediational theory. The disengaged and critical stance fostered by mediationalism supported the modern ideals of personal freedom, self-responsibility, the rejection of unjustified authority, and the technological mastery of nature. But, Dreyfus and Taylor caution, these same ideals are double-edged, since they also function to cut human society off from a supposedly disenchanted and mechanized natural world, to alienate supposedly autonomous individuals from an increasingly mass-minded society, and to dissociate our rational public personas from our private emotional inner lives, thereby alienating us even from ourselves (RR, 26).
In Chapter 2, Dreyfus and Taylor try to show the way out of the mediational picture by developing in more depth a contact-theoretical response to modern philosophy’s schizophrenic bifurcation between a passively apprehended deterministic nature and a spontaneously reflective mind. The intractability of the problem of how to account for experience in terms both active and passive was made especially evident in the extreme solutions proposed by the idealist Gottfried Leibniz  (i.e., experience is actively constructed inside windowless monads) and the empiricist David Hume (i.e., experience is passive sensations associated by a mind that is all window) (RR, 29). After briefly reviewing Kant’s attempt to unite the insights of Leibniz and Hume, and Hegel’s dialectical extension of transcendental arguments inaugurated by Kant, Dreyfus and Taylor go on to further unpack Heidegger’s, Wittgenstein’s, and Merleau-Ponty’s elaborations upon the central Kantian discovery that every particular sensory impression or bit of information presupposes the conceptual unity of a network of propositions and the holistic meaning of a spatiotemporal background. Kant brought the contextualizing conditions that had been hidden by Cartesian epistemology out into the open for the first time (RR, 33). Heidegger applied the Kantian form of argument to reveal the inadequacy of mediationalism’s supposition that we initially encounter the world as a collection of neutral objects, and only subsequently project meaning on them based on our subjective concerns. Instead, for Heidegger, “concernful involvement” with the world is the paradigmatic form of experience. This more primordial form of worldly embeddedness is the abiding condition making possible the disengaged, neutral descriptions of the natural sciences (RR, 34). Wittgenstein, for his part, extended Kant’s critique of the atomism of information by critiquing the atomic theory of linguistic meaning. The standard theory of linguistic meaning going back to Augustine had it that the meaning of a word comes from the mediating role it plays in linking an internal mental concept with the external object that it signifies. Wittgenstein argued that the “ostensive definitions” upon which this theory is based presuppose the implicit grammatical workings   of language and the preunderstandings baked into a culture’s view of the world. It follows that the meaning of language is not rooted in concept-word-thing relations established by individual minds, but rather depends upon the shared “form of life” of the society within which language-speakers are enculturated (RR, 37-38). Finally, Merleau-Ponty takes the mediational theory to task for ignoring the bodily, sensorimotor basis of experience. Rather than needing to formally represent or form explicit beliefs about the features of my environment in order to successfully navigate them, Merleau-Ponty eloquently describes how the lived body puts us in direct pre-conceptual touch with the world around us, such that we can skillfully cope with the affordances it provides for our activities without having to consciously reflect upon or purposefully design our action in advance of our environmental engagements (RR, 47).
Contrary to the reductive computational or cognitivist theory of experience, wherein formal symbolic representations of simple perceptual “inputs” allow an internal picture of the world to be constructed as a basis for action (as “output”), Dreyfus and Taylor build on Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty to argue for a gestalt view of experience wherein reflective, representational, or conceptually attentive consciousness is always already embedded within and emergent from skillful embodied coping in everyday social worlds (RR, 52-54). Our complex holistic understanding of the world, our immediate grasp of its bodily affordances and social meanings, is not an internal representation inferentially constructed out of simple sensory inputs. As Whitehead remarks after critiquing the mediational view (though he doesn’t call it that), “A young man does not initiate his experience by dancing with impressions of sensation, and then proceed to conjecture a partner.” He is first of all in contact with his dancing partner, and only afterwards (if he is of an especially philosophical or scientific bent) conjectures about her status as a collection of colorful shapes projected upon his retina.
Chapter 3 reviews Dreyfus and Taylor’s disagreement with Rorty regarding the need for a more adequate account of knowledge to replace the mediational theory. Rorty prefers to just walk away from the mediational problem space by accepting rival philosophical theories as different ways of talking about and coping with our environments, while Dreyfus and Taylor argue that the problem space can and must be recast so as to offer a more adequate account (RR, 65; more on this below). We can and must judge between the mediational and contact theories of knowledge.
Chapter 4 engages with John McDowell’s critique of the dualism between the space of reasons and the space of causes. McDowell’s approach partially aligns with the account Dreyfus and Taylor want to offer in that all three understand perception as actively engaged with and spontaneously responsive to the physical constraints of our bodies and our environment. Perception is thus not merely the passive reception or effect of causal stimuli. But their approaches differ in that Dreyfus and Taylor see the affordance-attunement and engaged spontaneity of perception as a preconceptual skill, while McDowell argues that all worldly engagement presupposes “a propositionally structured totality of facts” (RR, 84) such that human “perception is conceptual all the way out” (RR, 77). Dreyfus and Taylor defend the notion of a meaningful “preconceptual” space irreducible to the supposedly non-teleological causes operating in the natural world by offering two compellingly concrete examples of it: first, a young boy learning the name for the “stepping stones” he already possessed a prereflexive understanding of provides an example of “prelinguistic perception” (RR, 85); second, a professor lost in thought while driving to the office and later successfully reporting a detail about his trip provides an example of “prepropositional” perception (RR, 86). While they admit McDowell may have an adequate account for the second example (since the professor already knew the name for the detail in question) (RR, 87), with the first example, the boy clearly has some kind of skillful understanding of the rocks prior to learning their name or even consciously reflecting upon them. He was thus preconceptually familiar with them as meaningful features of his world prior to being able to talk or form logical propositions about them.
Dreyfus and Taylor conclude Chapter 4 by laying out their own eleven-stage account of how “causal contracts with the physical world” become linked with the space of reasons and justified beliefs (RR, 88-89). In the earliest of these stages, they repeatedly refer to processes of “optimization,” “balancing,” and “sensitivity” as part of an explanation for how preconceptual contact with the physical world becomes linguistically articulated and conceptualized. I return to these references later, since it is unclear what sense can be made  of the occurrence of such preconceptual but nonetheless teleological and mentalistic processes given Dreyfus and Taylor’s seeming deference to the ontology of scientific materialism when it comes to the “in itself” structure of reality.
In Chapter 5, Dreyfus and Taylor begin by clarifying that their embodied account is not at all the same as the mechanistic reductivist’s attempt to explain thinking in terms of neurophysiological computations in the brain, since, they argue, the latter’s explanation is still residually Cartesian and thus held captive by the mediational picture (RR, 91, 100). Knowledge, for Dreyfus and Taylor, is not inside the mind or the skull of the knower and is not distinct from the world in any way (RR, 94). If all knowing arises through embodied and socially embedded action in the world, they continue, then “the understanding I have of the world is not simply one constructed or determined by me”; rather, it “is a co-production of me and the world” (RR, 93). Preconceptual understanding is thus said to occur in the interaction or “interspace” between subject and object, rather than in the subject alone. Dreyfus and Taylor are clearly aware of the need to overcome the gap between causal nature and conceptual thought, but as I argue below, Whitehead’s philosophy of organism does the job in a more complete and coherent way.
In Chapter 6, Dreyfus and Taylor offer an argument on behalf of what I earlier called deep humanism, the idea that some bodily-based fusion of horizons is possible that allows different cultures to coordinate their schemes according to the same underlying “target area” (RR, 114). Even if our current perspectives appear irreconcilable, we can at least agree upon the need to continue to improve our view of the way things are (“facts”) and on what matters most (“values”).  Our capacities for “intercorporeality” and “linguisticality,” and our openness to risking our own identity in order to understand others, together constitute something like a human nature, even if this essential humanness remains aspirational rather than normal, i.e., an ideal description of our highest potential (RR, 118, 125). Despite their optimistic “humanist faith,” Dreyfus and Taylor end the chapter by admitting that “the possibility of ultimate noncalibration [between different cultures] must be kept open” (RR, 129-130). Nothing can assure us in advance that our efforts toward horizonal fusion or translation between any two or especially between all cultures will succeed. They therefore refer to theirs’ as a “plural realism.”
In Chapter 7, Taylor and Dreyfus differentiate their “robust” realism from Rorty’s “deflationary” realism. While Rorty found the idea of an objective “view from nowhere” unintelligible, they argue that the objects studied by natural science must constitute an independent reality, a world that exists entirely “in itself” and in no way “for us” (nor, presumably, “for itself”) (RR, 132). They want to argue that some version of the correspondence theory of truth can be salvaged that would grant us a transcendent, objective knowledge of nature even while it remains dependent upon and first arises out of our concernful bodily engagement with the world (RR, 135). For reasons discussed below, I am not convinced by their argument here. Realism can be retrieved without marshaling the idea of a “deworlded” reality of meaningless material objects.
In Chapter 8, Dreyfus and Taylor reiterate that there’s is a pluralistic realism, meaning that, even if modern science must be said to come to grips with things as they exist in themselves, this still leaves open “the possibility that there are a plurality of revealing perspectives on the world (nature, cosmos, universe)” (RR, 154). They seek third way between the two popular extremes of scientism and relativism, an aim I applaud. At this point, it is time to draw my summary to a close and to introduce another “third way” thinker, Alfred North Whitehead.
A Whiteheadian Wager

I offer this Whiteheadian interpolation as a fellow realist in support of the general thrust of Dreyfus and Taylor’s project, an effort I elsewhere characterize as the “re-enchantment project.” I count myself among an emerging wave of philosophers who have grown tired of the self-defeating hyper-critique of moderns and postmoderns alike, and who are ready to begin in earnest the difficult task of co-constructing a non-modern, post-secular, pluralistic, and re-enchanted cosmological scheme unhampered by the confusions and contradictions inherent to the “mediational picture” that Dreyfus and Taylor argue has consciously or unconsciously framed Western thought since Descartes (RR, 2). As we have seen, mediationalism is operative in any philosophy presupposing an “inner-outer structure” whereby “we grasp external reality [only] through internal representations” (RR, 2-3). The mediational picture begins with the basic assumption that minds have ideas about things. What at first may seem to be an obvious, common sense construal of the way we human beings relate to reality has led many of the modern philosophers who tried to work out the details into notoriously stubborn antinomies, paradoxes, and hard problems. Mediationalism has inhibited our capacity for world disclosure by making us think our grasp on the world is somehow “in us” rather than in the interaction, “the interspace of our dealings with things” (RR, 93; my italics). The modern common sense picture of reality, because it denies what Dreyfus and Taylor refer to as the “interspace” between mind and world, turns out to be rather violently incoherent. The challenges faced by our increasingly pluralistic planetary society demand of the philosophical community that some integral cosmic imaginary be articulated within which the salvific fruits of spiritual sense-making and the scientific truths of modern physics and biology can hang together with equal ontological weight. I not only share Dreyfus and Taylor’s faith that such a fusion of horizons may be possible (RR, 168), I believe it to be essential for our species’ successful navigation of the fast approaching evolutionary bottleneck caused by anthropogenic climate change and geopolitical instability.
I introduce and defend Whitehead’s organic realism as an ontological complement to the embedded, embodied, and engaged phenomenological account offered by Dreyfus and Taylor. The remainder of this essay sketches a line of argument (developed at length elsewhere) suggesting that Whitehead’s protest against the bifurcation of Nature and reconstruction of scientific naturalism upon a panexperientialist ontological footing provide much needed support for Dreyfus and Taylor’s otherwise intractable struggle to root out and untangle the “deeper topology” of mediationalism, a topology that continues to provide the “unnoticed context” shaping the imaginations of so many of its postmodern critics (RR, 3). Dreyfus and Taylor themselves at certain critical junctures remain tied to the topology of the mediational stance, most strikingly when they slip back into the modern bifurcation separating meaningless physical causation from embodied meanings and mental reasons. Another interpretation of modern scientific findings is possible, one that avoids the pitfalls of materialistic reductionism and skeptical relativism alike.
Dreyfus and Taylor’s book partially succeeds not only because it convincingly argues for the inadequacy of the modern mediational picture, but because it reveals the way this picture continues to covertly dominate the “anti-foundational” and “anti-representational” postmodern thinking that purports to have escaped it (RR, 5). As we have seen, by building on Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty’s “reembedding of thought and knowledge in the bodily and social-cultural context in which it takes place” (RR, 18), they lucidly articulate how and why the engaged mode of coping with a meaningful world of bodily concerns and affordances developmentally precedes the disengaged stance that natural science employs in its attempt to neutrally describe, as if from nowhere, a meaningless physical world (RR, 36). Where their book falls short is in its attempt to reconstruct an ontologically coherent “contact theory” that would release us from the epistemic captivity of the bifurcated conception of Nature. They rightly point out that a more adequate picture would need to overcome the schizophrenic bifurcation between the traditional concepts of mental spontaneity and physical necessity (RR, 29), but by effectively ceding physical ontology to the “mechanistic world picture” of post-Galilean science (RR, 9), their proposed compromise leaves us stuck, despite all their protestations against it, in the same old “conceptual grid” separating human meanings (even if these emerge from embodied coping) and natural mechanisms (RR, 11).
Dreyfus and Taylor warn against the reification that results “from ontologizing the canonical procedures of modern epistemology” (RR, 33). The ontologization of the disengaged method of access into an all-encompassing theory of reality led modern philosophers (including materialists, idealists, and dualists) to pose all the wrong questions, chief among them the  primary problem of mediationalism: how do meaningful mental images “in here” relate to neutral material impacts “out there”? Modern philosophers have put the wrong end first in their attempts to know the world, as though knowledge was produced through internal representation of an external reality. On the contrary, argue Dreyfus and Taylor, “my first understanding of reality is not a picture I am forming of it, but the sense given to a continuing transaction with it” (RR, 70). We are first of all beings-in-the-world, and only secondarily become critically reflective theorizers.
Faced with such poorly posed problems, Wittgenstein and Rorty’s prescription is that we simply change the subject. But this is insufficient, since (and here I whole-heartedly agree with Dreyfus and Taylor) the question remains as to whether the embedded or the disengaged conception of knowledge is more adequate (RR, 41, 65). Certainly, the empirico-mathematical methods of modern science have proven exceedingly useful by increasing our ability to predict and control natural processes. But to ontologize the instrumental knowledge produced by such a method into a picture of what the universe is “in itself” is to mistake an abstract model for concrete reality. Modern scientific epistemology (or “technoscience”) gives us more “power over” than “knowledge of” Nature. When it claims mechanistic knowledge of Nature, it puts the wrong end of the epistemic train first. If Dreyfus and Taylor are serious about the “necessary sequence in the genesis of modes” that places the learning processes of embodied coping before and beneath the knowledge production of disengaged scientific theorizing, why do they then go on to insist that the disengaged mode somehow conceptually transcends or is logically independent of the embedded mode and thus justified in its claims to a view from nowhere (RR, 45, 70)? If the goal is to construct an ontology that avoids the paradoxes and quandaries of mediationalism, then that ontology must avoid metaphysically dividing scientific logic from the physics it is supposed to be describing. Somehow or another, the physical knowledge of the scientist must itself be an expression of physical processes. An experiential continuity must link knower with known. No scientist, not even Galileo or Newton, constructs their model of Nature entirely out of clear and distinct logical premises. All scientific knowledge not only presupposes bodily engagement and energetic transaction with concrete natural processes, it is itself an expression of these natural processes. So while I applaud their protests against the dominance of Cartesian epistemology, I believe Dreyfus and Taylor are too quick to cede all authority on the ontology of Nature to a still residually Cartesian construal of scientific naturalism. Overcoming mediationalism means jettisoning the idea of an “independent” reality, of Nature existing “out there.”
From a Whiteheadian point of view, to bring forth a new robustly realist cosmological picture no longer held captive by mediationalism, it is first necessary that we overcome the bifurcation of Nature by re-imagining “experience” as decidedly not an epiphenomenal ghost caged within skulls or hidden beneath skin, nor as just a mysterious “interspace” that emerges between human subjects and objective constraints, but rather as intrinsic to and pervasive throughout the physical world. It is not enough to pose the question of whether a third “preconceptual” experiential space might be carved out between the space of natural causes and the space of human reasons and then punt the ontological football by declaring that we always implicitly “live” the answer to this question without being able to explicitly think it (RR, 67). If this were an adequate answer to the question they pose, why do Dreyfus and Taylor spend 168 carefully argued pages trying to make the inexplicable explicit? Surely not prosaic philosophy but poetry would have been the more appropriate medium here. Even if we forgive Dreyfus and Taylor this seemingly fundamental contradiction in their argument, I am still left wondering upon what realistic ontological (i.e., non-phenomenological) basis they might establish such a preconceptual “interspace,” since part of their way around the aporia of mediational dualism requires presupposing human agency (intentions, purposes, aims, desires, “optimizations,” “balancings,” and so forth) (RR, 69), even though such agency is precisely what is forbidden by a non-teleological understanding of the space of causes known to modern scientific materialism. Either everything—including human experience—is explainable in terms of physical causes as scientific materialists currently conceive them, or the mechanistic world picture of scientific materialism is mistaken. Dreyfus and Taylor are unwilling to challenge the “solidly established” Galilean-Newtonian conception of Nature, even while they show no restraint demolishing the mediational stance providing this conception with its philosophical justification. If their own convincing argument regarding the ontological inadequacy of the mediational conception underlying the Galilean-Newtonian picture of Nature was not enough on its own to call this picture into question, I am especially confused as to why, given their reliance on a supersessionist interpretation of scientific paradigms, the complete demolition of the seventeenth century mechanistic cosmology by twentieth century relativity, quantum, and complexity theories did not warrant even a mention in their book.
It could be that Dreyfus and Taylor did not detect any relevance in these new scientific revolutions to their attempted retrieval of realism. Whitehead, one of the most capable mathematicians in the world at the start of the twentieth century, was especially well-positioned to understand the significance of the breakdown of the old Galilean-Newtonian framework. For Whitehead, the newly emerging scientific understandings of spatio-temporal relativity, quantum non-locality, and the complex causality of self-organization had inescapable philosophical implications. He was thus led into the philosophy of science in search of a more participatory epistemology than the disengaged rationality inherited from Descartes and Kant. It was not long before he was forced all the way into the riskier adventure of full-blown metaphysics. “The recourse to metaphysics,” according to Whitehead, “is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena.” Thinking with Whitehead requires accepting his wager that blowing up the mediational arena that modern and postmodern philosophers have agreed (consciously or not) to play their dualistic conceptual games within is the only viable path forward, at least if a comprehensive and meaningful picture of the world is to be sought. The entire confused conceptual scheme that isolates minds from things behind signs must be demolished before a more coherent, integral vision of reality can be reconstructed. Meaning runs far deeper than designation. We will never be able to think our connection to reality if we think of reality as a collection of independent things, because meaningful experience is about more than things. Experience is constituted by interrelated events. The ontology of an event cannot be captured by the mental representation of material things or structures; rather, Whitehead’s process-relational ontology replaces the traditional frameworks of substance dualism and mental representation with novel concepts of processual polarity and prehensive unification. Mind and matter are thus not conceived of as separate substances but as poles in dynamic tension with one another, each one contributing to the unification of every actual occasion of experience in Nature. The distinction between mental thoughts and physical things is not denied by Whitehead, but shifted from a spatial and substance-based framework into a genetic and process-relational one. Meaningful experience is constituted by the growing together (or, in Whitehead’s terms, the “concrescence”) of the stubborn facts of the past with the novel possibilities for the future that these facts afford the present. The past lingers in our physical feelings and corporeal habits, even in the very morphology of our skeletal muscles, for example (reflecting the decision of our ancestors to walk upright), while the future goads us ever onward, quickening our minds with youthful ideals as yet unrealized. “Science is concerned with the facts of bygone transition,” that is, with the past, while “[it] is the religious impulse in the world which transforms the dead facts of science into the living drama of history”; it is for this reason, Whitehead continues, that “science can never foretell the perpetual novelty of history.” A new world-picture must acknowledge the scientific evidences of the past as well as the religious evidences of the future. It must account for the meaning of experience, of “being here,” in its full temporal depth (RR, 22).
Dreyfus and Taylor are not wrong in their assurance that the continued success of the natural sciences (“success” measured, presumably, in the instrumental terms of prediction and control) “depends on [their] not being so out of touch” with reality (RR, 56). The cosmological questions that Whitehead allows us to ask by demolishing the Galilean-Newtonian world-picture are not at all predicated upon a denial of natural science’s contact with actual Nature. “I assume as an axiom,” Whitehead assures us, “that science is not a fairy tale.” The scientific method indeed puts us in touch with a real world. Given the ontogenetic priority of engaged coping over disengaged description, how could this not be the case? Scientists have never simply been modest and withdrawn observers of reality, but always active experimenters with reality, and themselves features of the reality they experiment upon. Acknowledging natural science’s practical engagement with, and ever-increasing predictive control over, Nature is not the same as saying that its mechanical models of Nature are identical to Nature, or are the way Nature is. It cannot be repeated enough that a coherent world-picture requires that the Nature known to science is capable of producing scientific knowledge as one of its products. If it is not (as is the case with the mechanistic picture, for which the emergence of living organisms and especially of intelligent minds remains an incomprehensible miracle), then we can be sure we are dealing with an abstract model and not with actual Nature. The analytic methods of Descartes, Galileo, and Newton did not really sever the embodied continuum linking the meaningful emotions of the soul to the supposedly mechanical motions of Nature. What happened is that a convenient method of parsing experience was falsely reified into a bifurcated ontology, leading us to believe, tragically, that we moderns had disenchanted the world. We convinced ourselves that the whole universe comes to nothing through the anthropocentric conceit that all meaning is lodged within the human skull.
Whitehead’s cosmology is an invitation to consider an alternative vision that is not only compatible with but also more coherently integrates what natural science has revealed about the universe over the last century. We need not continue to commit what Whitehead diagnosed as “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” by mistaking abstract models of reality for concrete transactions with it. We still always inhabit a universe of inextricably meaningful relationships, “acting in and on a world that also acts on us,” as Dreyfus and Taylor put it (RR, 18). The classical scientific concept of causality makes it impossible to understand how the world’s action on us could be anything but the impact of blind forces devoid of intrinsic meaning or value, thereby opening an unbridgeable gap between the deterministic space of causes and the voluntaristic space of reasons. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is a protest against this way of constructing the metaphysical arena. “What I am essentially protesting against,” he explains,
is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality…, namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness. The nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature. The meeting point of these two natures is the mind, the causal nature being influent and the apparent nature being effluent… Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream.
Whitehead did not just protest against the bifurcation of Nature, he attempted to construct an integral cosmological vision that accounts for “the all-embracing relations” active in my felt experience of warmth as much as in the energetic vibrations of photons radiating from the Sun. What does my experience of warmth have in common with photons radiating from the Sun? How do the two aspects of reality hang together? Whitehead’s bold re-imagining of the mediational frame beckons us to inhabit a world wherein experience as such—William James’ “pure experience”—is the all-embracing relation that permits transmission across the chasm that only seems to separate physical Nature from intentional mind. The cosmos is not composed of bits of material scattered in empty space with motions obeying eternally imposed laws, but an evolving community of experiential agencies, or what Whitehead calls organic societies of actual occasions, actively and sensitively engaged in an ongoing “choreography of coexistence” (to use Varela and Maturana’s wonderful turn of phrase). “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures,” as Whitehead puts it.
Where Merleau-Ponty’s “unmediated body-based intentionality” (RR, 48) is extended only to humans or animals by Dreyfus and Taylor, and where other phenomenological thinkers go only so far as to allow cellular intentionality, Whitehead’s panexperientialism grants to every actual occasion in Nature—whether electromagnetic, cellular, neural, or stellar—at least prehensional contact with its surroundings. The concept of prehension is Whitehead’s attempt to resolve the most “notorious problem of the tradition of modern philosophy” by constructing a truly amphibious account of the apparent boundary between spontaneity and receptivity (RR, 29). Whitehead’s new concept of prehensive unification is offered as a replacement for the more abstract concept of causal impact and its associated view of a dead and disconnected Nature whose final real constituents are fully and inertly present “at an instant.” Instead, prehension entails a process-relational view of the concrete passage of living Nature, where the final real creatures composing reality are not inert material things but occasions of experience. Concrete Nature is thus “a complex of prehensive unifications,” with space and time “[exhibiting] the general scheme of interlocked relations of these prehensions.” Each actual occasion “arises as an effect facing its past and ends as a cause facing its future.” Each occasion of experience’s “concrescence” of past effects with future possibilities breathes life into the present moment again and again, providing the eternal pulse driving Nature’s becoming. Whitehead writes:

The oneness of the universe, and the oneness of each element in the universe, repeat themselves to the crack of doom in the creative advance from creature to creature, each creature including in itself the whole of history and exemplifying the self-identity of things and their mutual diversities.
The most concrete reality of the cosmos is thus not a static structure but a creative process. We find ourselves open to a living “Creality” and not closed in a dead reality waiting to be known “out there” somewhere. Living Nature is thus described most concretely by Whitehead as “the throbbing emotion of the past hurling itself into a new transcendent fact.”

Whitehead’s unbifurcated interpretation of the relationship between the physical Nature known to science and the human being doing the knowing is a systematic cosmological extension of James’ radical empiricism. James is another thinker not mentioned by Dreyfus and Taylor, but whose more than century-old efforts to overcome the mediational picture by way of a radical return to experience are more than relevant to the successful navigation of their dilemma. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that James already traversed the territory. His radical empiricism dissolves mediational epistemology’s abstract, dualistic conception of the relation between knowing subjects and known objects. For much of Western philosophical history, James writes in his 1904 essay “A World of Pure Experience,” the process of knowing reality

has assumed a paradoxical character which all sorts of theories had to be invented to overcome. Representative theories put a mental “representation,” “image,” or “content” into the gap, as a sort of intermediary. Common-sense theories left the gap untouched, declaring our mind able to clear it by a self-transcending leap. Transcendentalist theories left it impossible to traverse by finite knowers, and brought an Absolute in to perform the saltatory act. All the while, in the very bosom of the finite experience, every conjunction required to make the relation intelligible is given in full. […] Knowledge of sensible realities…comes to life inside the tissue of experience. It is made; and made by relations that unroll themselves in time. […] That is all that knowing…can be known-as, that is the whole of its nature, put into experiential terms.
Dreyfus and Taylor’s attempt to heal the mediational wound alienating moderns and postmoderns alike from contact with reality fails as soon as they cede the “in itself”—the known objects of a bifurcated Nature—to the falsely ontologized methods of instrumental science. Furthermore, by restricting the “for itself” structure of subjectivity exclusively to humans, or at most extending it to animals or cellular life, their approach remains anthropocentric and residually Cartesian. Whitehead’s cosmological generalization of Jamesian radical empiricism does not challenge Dreyfus and Taylor’s conviction that “natural science describes the structure of the universe in itself with which our coping is, from the start, in direct contact” (RR, 144). It just asks what the structure (or, better, the creative process) of the universe must be like at the most primal level such that the emergence of creatures like us capable of adaptive coping makes any sense. How is it that the universe over which we think we are gaining progressively more technological control (RR, 145) has generated embodied, embedded, and engaged experiential agencies capable of getting such a handle on it? To accept the problem space of this question as one in which blind causality must somehow be understood to transact with, and even to have produced sentient agency, is to wander right back into the thicket of the mediational frame. Whitehead’s cosmological scheme demolishes the mediational frame once and for all, allowing us to step back into a full-blooded reality within which vibrating photons and amber sunsets carry equal ontological weight. Whitehead invites us to imagine a world wherein “the energetic activity considered in physics is the emotional intensity entertained in life.” It is a bold ontological wager that might just be worth the risk.


15 thoughts on “Retrieving Realism: A Whiteheadian Wager

  1. Matt,

    I think there’s a typo in the first sentence of the paragraph before section 2.

    The most concrete reality of the cosmos is thus not a static structure by a creative process.

    Shouldn’t the word “by” be “but”?



  2. I completely agree with the direction of this article. Experience can be understood (and not just theoretically), as something other than an arbitrary special effect, or mediator, created in some god given (or alien given, or advanced civilisation given) gulf between thinking and being, but as that which is a good condition for elaboration of thinking and being in the first place. If thinking prefers to remain separate from being, it can do so. It can, for example, treat experience as some sort of illusory thing that is not in itself thought (and not in itself being). And attempt to otherwise think being without it. Or it can ask experience to play the role of some sort of mediator between being and thinking, and think being in that way. But it can go that one step further, and treat experience as that which inspires concepts such as thinking and being in the first place, and elaborate out such concepts with experience behind it (rather than in front of it). And it can go even further and create experiences. A “creality”. A cool neologism. It can become experience that explains thinking/being (in it’s own peculiar way), rather than thinking and/or being which is to explain (or fail to explain) experience.

  3. Good article. I am a Whitehead sympathiser, so agree with the thrust of the discussion. I like the term ‘panexperiential’ instead of the usual ‘panpsychic’. For me, Whitehead’s notion of ‘prehension’ solves the old bifurcative dilemma once and for all.

  4. This is excellent. I have just begun my journey with Whitehead, and it’s fascinating to say the least.

    But an initial observation from this excellent review…

    It seems that once you (or Whitehead) begin to use words like “concrete” and “contact” that try to create definition … borders “around” … “where one stops and the other begins” … that Whitehead’s argument starts to weaken instead of strengthen.

    I would say that there is a fluidity between the experience and the reality (between both “Nature” that Whitehead alludes to). There isn’t a border, a definition, and perhaps not even a transition … just an infinite “fluidity” of both types of Nature interacting in different ways (e.g. when the correct conditions present themselves even rocks turn into lava etc…).

    I have to say that discovering Whitehead is an enjoyable experience indeed.

  5. Hi Matthew,
    This is a timely discovery for me as I am about to start work on the edits for my next (short) book, “Wikipedia Knows Nothing”, my first piece of epistemology – and one that has already earned me ‘reprisals’ from the site in its title! The book collides, amongst other things, William James’ multiverse/pluriverse, Whitehead’s event-focussed ontology, and the Taylor and Dreyfus book you are responding to here. I was yearning to read someone else’s response to Taylor and Dreyfus, and here you are (and complete with pointers to other reviews to boot).

    A few comments, not necessarily useful for your article, but in the spirit of open philosophical discourse at the very least.

    Firstly, the Latour quote… I’m unhappy with Latour’s accusation here, which it seems to me is misplaced. He states that metaphysics is “something one is no longer supposed to do after the edicts of the first ‘W'”, but this would be to misunderstand Wittgenstein’s work entirely. The Tractatus, which is the source of this complaint, cannot in my view be understood as endorsing this edict – quite the opposite. Along this line, I don’t particularly appreciate the implication that Whitehead and Wittgenstein must be read in opposition… on the contrary, as your piece broadly demonstrates, a Wittgensteinian appreciation for practices, as Taylor and Dreyfus draw out, is extremely compatible with Whitehead – as you demonstrate here.

    I confess to being utterly dumbfounded when, after constructing such a robust basis for their contact theory, Taylor and Dreyfus then went on to endorse an extremely bog-standard, indeed, a rather suspect, account of scientific realism that they then attempt to fold into their approach. That is, I think we both agree, the weakest aspect of “Retrieving Realism”. However, I don’t agree with your suggestion that in so doing they “fail” to construct a contact theory: I would claim that their contact theory is the book’s greatest success. Their failure to integrate an understanding of scientific epistemology into their contact theory is a weakness of their presentation of the idea, not a failure to construct a contact theory at all. Such, at least, is my take on their book.

    I do agree with you that Whitehead and William James are a good alternative route to go here… I take Whitehead largely in the vein of Stengers and Latour – I continue to find the notion of spokespeople to be an invaluable way of understanding the work of researchers, and think (in contradistinction to those who think that Latour lost the plot when he started moving away from ANT) that Latour’s “Politics of Nature” is a key resource for anyone working on the interface between the sciences and politics, exactly as Latour intended. I seem to be taking something different from William James to you, but this may be that I am simply a dabbler in James since I am not from the US where his philosophical influence is clearly more strongly felt. (In that regard, your James quote seems rather overlong… and I’m not sure it’s doing work that is commensurate to its length.)

    What I take directly from Whitehead is the notion of an ontology based on events and not upon matter. This seems to me to be something I don’t see Whitehead scholars (and I take you as being such) discussing very much. In general, I find the discussion of Whitehead in your account here to suffer from the basic Whitehead scholarship problem: if you’re on the inside, it all makes sense, and if you’re not then what is it all supposed to be about? As someone whose Whitehead reading has only gone as far as the lighter pieces (“Science and the Modern World” and “Concept of Nature”), I find that much that is written on Whitehead presupposes having read Whitehead… I think there’s a little of that going on in your piece too, which won’t matter if your expectation is that your readers will be reasonably fluent in his work.

    Ultimately, I wonder if your piece doesn’t give the erroneous impression that Whitehead had already advanced a contact theory of the kind that Taylor and Dreyfus construct in “Retrieving Realism”. I totally accept your claim that his concept of ‘prehension’ can be gainfully compared to Taylor and Dreyfus’ theory, and that their ideas can benefit from cross-pollination with Whitehead’s ideas – indeed, I think you’re absolutely spot on about all of this. But would you even be talking about a contact theory without their book? You might be underselling what they achieved here, just because of their stumbling about how to integrate the sciences into their approach. Similarly, the concept of the mediational view that they construct strikes me as one of the clearest statements of the problem, massively more lucid than Latour’s “We Have Never Been Modern”, which is a joy to read but far from clearly constructed. I fear your piece might not be giving Taylor and Dreyfus full credit for what they have done well, simply because fusing them with Whitehead would take them further. I agree with you that it would: does that negate their achievements, or merely point a way forward?

    Hope these remarks are helpful or, if not, interesting.

    Best wishes,


    1. Thanks for your feedback, Chris. It could be that I misunderstand Wittgenstein. He had a major influence on me as a college student. I wrote a few short essays on his ideas:
      My understanding is that Wittgenstein saw the philosopher as a sort of physician whose role was to cure metaphysical confusions by unasking certain questions. Human language is thus in over its head when it tries to do the sort of speculative philosophizing that Whitehead attempted. I think there are aspects of Wittgenstein’s thought that are compatible with Whitehead, but their overall projects are quite different. I agree with Latour that Whitehead’s project is much more bold, which could also just mean it fails spectacularly.
      I appreciate some of your critique, so I’ve updated the essay to further spell out the importance of events for Whitehead and also why I think Dreyfus and Taylor’s attempted “contact theory” falls short.

  6. O thou art that & holons network thinking, discover #FriendshipCube Rally, imagine, learn, collaborate, gain the linguistic object of eternity, in the form of a cube that you carry with you.

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