Goethe and Whitehead: Steps to a Science of Organism

This essay was slated to be published in the Holistic Science Journal, but it looks like it will end up somewhere else later this year. I’ve been sitting on it for a while, though, and wanted to share it here. Feedback welcome.

“Goethe and Whitehead: Steps to a Science of Organism” (2021):


  1. I remember reading an earlier version of this, but I’m still excited by your concluding section 4 with the importance of in some way observing the propositional feelings—the entertainment of theories—occurring in nature and which is structuring self-organizing activity. I believe I may have influenced you to phrase the account of concrescence such: “Subjects are thus granted a partial or quasi- pre-existence, since there must be at least the premonition or promise of a subjectively unified satisfaction in order to lure many mutually sensitive prehensions out of the settled past toward the one unique aim of the new occasion they are actualizing within.” I think this is a very fitting point in this context, since it is exactly this categoreal necessity of a concrescence for a “pre-established harmony” (the subjective unity and subjective harmony necessary to any concrescence, i.e. categoreal obligations i and vii) that makes all actual entities genuinely organic purposive activity, i.e. activity that presupposes and organizes itself around an end that is just such a theory or propositional lure (the subjective aim). As Kant put it in the First Introduction to the third Critique (which I am just now reading!), “For we call purposive that the existence of which seems to presuppose a representation of that same thing” (20: 216) and, further, Kant distinguishes the purposive technique of art from mechanics by the latter’s “combination of the manifold without a concept lying at the ground of its manner of unification”, such that they “are not possible solely in relation to” ends (20: 219). But if we follow Whitehead’s theory, all of nature consists of occasions whose becoming is the combination of a manifold (i.e., an integration of prehensions into one satisfaction) as grounded in a “pre-established harmony” established by the hybrid prehension of God’s conceptual pole, containing a lure for that occasion, and then creatively modified by later conceptual prehensions, such that this is a combination whose existence is possible solely in relation to ends; therefore, mechanics is only derivative from this purposive art. I do wonder how relevant of a interpretative framework this could be for contemporary research like Michael Levin’s that seems to be attempting to account for an observable cognitive activity throughout nature (if I’m not misrepresenting one of the conclusions of such). One problem here, perhaps, is the distinction between directly observing such propositional feelings—that is, hybridly prehending the mental pole of natural phenomena to ourselves feel their conceptual activity (so, basically, telepathy), which you seem to be indicating as part of Goethe’s method—and inferring the existence of such propositional feelings based on the evidence of other direct observations, which rather seems to me to be the more common method of interpreting ends in behavior. Are you rejecting the latter when you write “The Goethean scientist thus does not invent theoretical models to explain Nature by reference to something unperceived and unperceivabe” (p. 16)? I think it is entirely possible that we are so constituted with a sympathy to the rest of nature such that our own abductive judgments about its ends have something of a basis in hybrid prehensions of nature (and thus intuitions), but I also am doubtful this can ever be raised to consciousness enough to provide the methodological basis of a science beyond said science’s basis in pre-conscious abductive judgments (Peircean “perceptual judgments”), so that it rather must when it comes to a methodology, i.e. how to operate in regards to our consciously controlled activity to test theories, rely on discursive inferences from the evidence of sense-perceptions that in themselves do not disclose any direct intuition of the ends.

    Perhaps on a similar note of the issue of intuitions as a secure basis for conscious judgments, it’s interesting you bring in Kant’s theory of math as synthetic a priori—which is one part of his philosophy I’m not sure I’m very convinced of; I think for Whitehead mathematics is just analytic necessity, namely the analysis of classes of propositions considered as purely extensional indications, what in “Indication, Classes, Numbers, Validation” he termed “primary propositions”, i.e. propositions where intensional predication by sensa or other attributes requiring some experiential reference is entirely abstracted out to leave the pure thatness of a denoted thing. It is in metaphysics, on the other hand, that we have something like a synthetic necessity involving what is the case in any construction of experience—i.e., a necessary intension, as derived by generalization from all such intensional predications of empirically true propositions.

    1. Thanks for this lovely comment, Ben! I believe you are correct re: your influence on my phrasing of “quasi-pre-existence of a subject.” I remain hesitant to grant the subject a genuine pre-existence, despite Whitehead’s comments about a “pre-established harmony” of feelings in concrescence. He qualifies this Leibnizian idea (which he elsewhere criticizes) by saying that the mutual sensitivity of feelings on their way to final concrescence can be understood in the “guise” of a pre-established harmony (PR 221). While partial feelings still on their way to determination can be considered propositionally, they should not be unduly considered as actualities, which would do violence to their nature. So there is no actual pre-established harmony just as there is no pre-given subject, but (when abstractly considered in any phase of its concrescence) just the possibility of such on the way to actualization as a superject. “This pre-established harmony is an outcome of the fact that no prehension can be considered in abstraction from its subject, **although it originates in the process creative of its subject**.” (PR 27) Here’s how Whitehead puts it elsewhere:

      “The philosophy of organism is the inversion of Kant’s philosophy. The Critique of Pure Reason describes the process by which subjective data
      pass into the appearance of an objective world. The philosophy of organism seeks to describe how objective data pass into subjective satisfaction, and how order in the objective data provides intensity in the subjective satisfaction. For Kant, the world emerges from the subject; for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from the world–a ‘superject’ rather than a ‘subject.’ The word ‘object’ thus means an entity which is a potentiality for being a component in feeling; and the word ‘subject’ means the entity constituted by the process of feeling, and including this process. The feeler is the unity emergent from its own feelings; and feelings are the details of the process intermediary between this unity and its many data.” (PR 88)

      This is all just nuance and I don’t see any significant disagreement between us on these points. Perhaps just a difference in emphasis, as I want to insist that the subject emerges from the world and does not pre-exist (as an actualized subject) the prehensions which grow together as formative elements in its self-creation. Tricky business, this, but I think getting this right is essential to making good on Whitehead’s claim to have overcome substance ontology.

      Your question about scientific methodology is really the crucial issue here. Was Goethe really intuiting the formative feelings of plants, etc., or just imagining he was (as Schiller tried to convince him)? If he was, can his method be learned by others, or was he just a uniquely gifted genius? I would say Whitehead’s account of propositional feelings at least leaves the door open to the possibility that we can cultivate the conscious sensitivity which would allow us to further develop the Goethean method. It may require, as Schelling said, the development of new organs of perception.

      I disagree that Whitehead saw math as just analytic necessity. Perhaps he saw things this way in his earlier collab with Russell on the ‘Principia,’ but the failure of that project led him in a different direction in his later metaphysical works, embracing the role of intuition. Arran Gare, for ex., argues for a convergence of Schelling, Peirce, and Whitehead on this point (from Desmet, ed., “Intuition in Mathematics and Physics” (2016)):
      “Whitehead’s rejection of the project to reduce mathematics to logic and the development of his mature philosophy, and along with it, a
      different conception of mathematics, was really a development of the early influence of the Schellingian tradition and a creative contribution
      to constructivist thought. Instead of reducing mathematics to logic, Whitehead argued in ‘Mathematics of the Good’ that ‘Mathematics is the most powerful technique for the understanding of pattern.’ When we say ‘twice three is six,’ Whitehead proclaimed in Modes of Thought, ‘we are not saying that these two sides of the equation mean the same thing, but that two threes is a fluent process which become six as a completed pattern.’ So, for Whitehead, ‘mathematics is concerned with certain forms of process issuing into forms which are components for further process.’ Aligned with Schelling, Charles Peirce’s characterization of mathematics was also a development within this tradition, and a further advance of it. Combining Whitehead’s and Peirce’s conceptions of mathematics, we can characterize mathematics as diagrammatical reasoning, studying iconic signs as a way of studying patterns and their transformations, including the patterns of reasoning, and in terms of such patterns and transformations, the relationship between the different branches of mathematics. Diagrammatic reasoning is really a form of intuition achieved through the construction and transformation of diagrams. Conceived of in this way, Whitehead’s Universal Algebra can itself be seen not only as a form of constructivism giving a central place to intuition and understanding, but as a further precursor to category theory” (153-154).

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