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

Dialogue with Bernardo Kastrup: Translating between Analytic Idealism and Process-Relationalism

My long-overdue conversation with Bernardo Kastrup is above. I am pleased with how this turned out. We mostly attempted to translate between our respective orientations, finding many overlaps despite differences of emphasis. I think important differences remain, though we’ll have to iron those out together in the future.

A few thoughts about what we discussed:

Whitehead is explicit that Creativity is only ever actual in the form of its creatures; it should not be hypostasized as some sort of independent being or power or force, etc. 

“In all philosophic theory there is an ultimate which is actual in virtue of its accidents. It is only then capable of characterization through its accidental embodiments, and apart from these accidents is devoid of actuality. In the philosophy of organism this ultimate is termed ‘creativity’; and God is its primordial, non-temporal accident. In monistic philosophies, Spinoza’s or absolute idealism, this ultimate is God, who is also equivalently termed ‘The Absolute.’ In such monistic schemes, the ultimate is illegitimately allowed a final, ’eminent’ reality, beyond that ascribed to any of its accidents.”

Process & Reality, p. 7

God, as the primordial creature of Creativity, establishes a cosmic character or original personality for Creativity, a character which is inherited or prehended by every subsequent actual occasion/temporal creature to arise. God thus acts as a lure, inspiring temporal creatures to realize that beauty which it is in their power to achieve. Elsewhere Whitehead says of Creativity that it constitutes a “principle of unrest”: it is that which requires that we say of the universe that it remains incomplete, always passing beyond itself. I think the difference with Bernardo’s conception of Mind at Large is clear enough. Whitehead’s God does not have an attractor but is itself the attractor. I am not clear what it would mean for Mind at Large, as Bernardo describes it, to have a telos or attractor, as that implies there is something outside it toward which it is striving. 

Whitehead denies that there is a substantial subject that persists through each moment of its life-history. This is not the same as denying that Process individuates itself, or that Creativity comes in the form of individually concrescent creatures. Whitehead is an atomist of sorts, though his atoms are not inert bits of matter fully present at an instant and simply located in empty space. Rather, Whitehead’s atoms are occasions of experience that arise out of an inherited past and perish into an anticipated future. They are fully individualized subjects, but are occasional rather than substantial, existing subjectively only momentarily in the tension of transition into and beyond themselves, finally perishing into objectivity upon completion of their concrescence. In other words, there is no unchanging thinker behind my thoughts, since in Whitehead’s view, each thought is itself a new concrescence, contributing itself to the “society” or “historical route” that, in common terms, constitutes my personality or soul-life. Each concrescence becomes an individual subject only at the end of its process, rather than the subject pre-existing its process of realization. The entity doing the perceiving or thinking is thus always passing beyond itself, and what we normally think of as the thinker of thoughts is a kind of social achievement, an especially intimate lineage of inherited occasions of experience that constitute a stream of consciousness with which I identify as my self. I am thus new in each moment, though in a way that is continuous with who I have been before. 

I may have overstated the sense in which Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme is a descriptive and not an explanatory project. After all, he has a whole list of “categories of explanation” in Process and Reality. Let me try to clarify. The reason I was hesitant to say he is trying to explain is that typically explanation involves “explaining away” some higher level process by reference to its simpler lower level components. There is no room for mereological reductionism in Whitehead’s cosmology (i.e., wholes can never be explained by reference to their parts, but must be understood on their own terms). For Whitehead, the first rule of any explanation is that the concrete entity or process we are seeking to understand can never be understood by reducing it to something more abstract than itself (i.e., smaller entities not directly experienced but conjectured to exist as part of some model, etc.). In short, the concrete is to explain the abstract, and never the reverse. In the context of Whitehead’s categoreal scheme, explanation is only possible once his effort at descriptive generalization has been integrated. He says in a critical discussion of Hume’s uncoordinated philosophic findings (i.e., his criticism of knowledge and uncritical acceptance of practice; see PR 153) that “explanation is the analysis of coordination,” meaning that it is only possible when the categories in one’s metaphysical scheme hang together coherently, each requiring the others without any arbitrary exceptions, insertions, or contradictions.  

I’ll also share a debrief conversation below with my partner Ashton recorded just after finishing with Bernardo, wherein we try to tease out some of these differences as regards the status of individuals and communities amidst the historical process.



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