“Retrieving Realism: A Whiteheadian Wager” published in IJTS

Retrieving Realism: A Whiteheadian Wager (PDF)

Published in International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Volume 36, Issue 1 (2017)

Abstract: This essay argues that the organic realism of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) provides a viable alternative to anti-realist tendencies in modern and postmodern philosophy since Descartes. The metaphysical merits of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism are unpacked in conversation with Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor’s recent book Retrieving Realism (2015). Like Dreyfus and Taylor, Whitehead’s philosophical project was motivated by a desire to heal the modern epistemic wound separating soul from world in order to put human consciousness back into meaningful contact with reality. While Dreyfus and Taylor’s book succeeds in articulating the problem cogently, its still too phenomenological answer remains ontologically unsatisfying. Whitehead’s process-relational approach invites philosophy to move closer to a real solution.

Towards a new root image in natural science…

Here is anthropologist Anne Buchanan on the post-truth era in natural science.

I was reminded of my post on the federally-funded Brain Initiative a few years ago.

Buchanan includes geneticist Ken Weiss’ list of facts that do not fit the reductionistic paradigm of “normal science” in biology at the end of her post.

Weiss and Buchanan have co-authored the book The Mermaid’s Tale: Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things

Though I haven’t read their book yet, Buchanan and Weiss’ perspective seems to dovetail nicely with what I argue (with Whitehead’s help) in Physics of the World-Soul: that the paradigm shift required to make sense of self-organizing dynamics active at the biological scale will also need to make sense of the self-organizing dynamics active at the quantum and astrophysical scales. In short, mechanical models describable solely in terms of efficient causation cannot account for the observable facts of physics or of biology. Organism must replace mechanism as the root image, and formal and final causation must be reincorporated into a more adequate naturalistic ontology—a naturalism wherein value and experience are intrinsic to every process of realty.

11th International Whitehead Conference (2017 in the Azores)

spring_tree-e1429150071293The 11th International Whitehead Conference will be hosted by the University of the Azores on Sao Miguel Island.

Google Maps

The conference website is now up. The title of the 2017 conference is Nature in Process: Novel Approaches to Science and Metaphysics. The section headings and descriptions should be available in a few months. I’m told there will be sections on Bergson, James, Sri Aurobindo, integral ecology, and integral economics.

I should be done with my dissertation by July 2017. I’ll probably present a paper extracted from it on Whitehead’s evental ether theory and alternative interpretation of relativity.

The Varieties of Materialism: Matter as the Play of Form

Following up on my contribution to the Latour/AIME reading group, I wanted to say a bit more about the confused concept called “matter.” There are many varieties of materialism, but for the sake of time, let’s follow Robert Jackson by dividing them up into two basic categories: 1) that variety of materialism which understands matter as some ultimate stuff that all emergent forms can be reduced to, 2) that which understands matter as some primordial formlessness, or endlessly differentiating movement from out of which all form emerges.


While I’m committed to articulating a realist ontology (my dissertation draws on Schelling and Whitehead in pursuit of what you might call an ontology of organism), I’d argue that to be real is not necessarily to be material, especially if matter is conceived of as a fundamental stuff. If we insist on continuing to employ the words “mind” and “matter” in metaphysical discussions, I’d want to construe them not as separate substances in a dualist ontology, but rather as reciprocal poles in an ontology of becoming, where “matter” signifies the accumulated weight of the stubborn facts of the past, while “mind” signifies the novel forms yearning for realization in the future. Every passing moment, or drop of experience, exists in tension between the two poles, fact and form, or actuality and potentiality. Matter, then, is only half the picture. A universe of only material things would be a universe where everything had already been actualized such that nothing new could ever emerge. All that could occur would be the rearrangement of the same old matter. There are plenty of thinkers who would disagree with me. For example, see Levi Bryant’s recent post.

Bryant seems to want to defend a non-reductive version of the first type of materialism. Contrary to my claim that materialistic atomism makes real emergent novelty impossible, Bryant writes:

…it’s difficult to see how this criticism hits the mark with the atomistic materialism of thinkers such as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius.  Lucretius, for example, is quite clear that relations between atoms are every bit as important as the atoms themselves.  In example after example he discusses emergent entities that manifest powers (capacities) and properties only when atoms are arranged [or organized] in these particular ways…certain objects are only possible through certain relations.

I’ve probably got much to learn from Bryant about the Greek atomists. So my response here as much a query as a claim. I am aware that the third necessary ingredient in Lucretius’ scheme (aside from atoms and the void) is the clinamen. Atoms have an unexplained tendency to swerve as they fall through the void. According to Lucretius, without the clinamen, “nature would have never produced anything” (ii. 216-224), since no interaction would ever have occurred between atoms to allow for material organization. Leaving aside the equally puzzling question as to where atomic weight comes from or why atoms should be falling, we might also ask what the cause of this swerve, and so of material organization, is. Why do otherwise inert atoms have such a strange inclination for “curved” motion? Why does matter tend to turn in on itself? Lucretius seemed content to say it was simply “chance.” Chance, I suppose, means “for no reason at all.” Perhaps a strange swerving deserves an equally strange story. But we could tell other stories that make more sense. Dante might identify the cause of the clinamen with the Primum Mobile, the final sphere of the heavens whose divinely inspired motion initiates and sustains the motion of all the spheres it encloses (Paradiso, Canto XXVII). Of course, modern cosmology has outgrown Dante’s ancient geocentric imagination. We need a new creation myth to account for the strange inclinations of matter, a story more credible than the rather mechanical cosmos of revolving crystalline spheres first described by Aristotle and Ptolemy. I imagine Bryant would disagree with the need for a story in ontology, but then again, Lucretius articulated his ontology in the form of an epic poem. When it comes down to it, every metaphysician needs to give narrative force to their ontology by way of some ultimate reason(s) for which no reason can be given (other than givenness itself). For Whitehead, the ultimate reasons are aesthetic (Eros, Beauty), while the main characters in his cosmic plot are Creativity and Actuality. For Plato, the ultimate reasons are moral (Goodness, Truth), while his main characters are Nous and Chora.

Bryant says Lucretius finds relations to be as important as atoms. Does this mean relations are just as real as atoms? If so, perhaps the cause of the clinamen, and by proxy of nature’s emergent hierarchy of complexity, has something to do with an inclination to relate. “Chance” seems to me to be a poor explanation for such an inclination. Throwing our hands up by claiming such an all-pervasive swerve is random seems to me to be a rather anti-metaphysical, even anti-scientific, move. The tendency to relate must have a cause. There must be some account we can give of it that aligns with our understanding and coheres with our experience. Such an inclination, or tendency, may be motivated by what Whitehead, after Plato, called Eros. For Dante, Eros is “the love which moves the sun and other stars” (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, lines 142-145). Love requires freedom, so this story concerning the cause of the clinamen need not neglect the uncertainty of atomic motion. All that I’d want to add to Lucretius’ account of atomic motion is relational emotion. This brings his ontology rather close to Whitehead’s processual atomism. How close depends on whether we are willing to say relations are just as real, and just as primordial, as atoms. Whitehead’s process-relational scheme includes both internal relations and external relations. On Bryant’s reading, Lucretius would seem to leave no room for internal relations: atoms can only collide; they cannot collude (they can only relate externally via efficient causation; they cannot relate internally via erotic play).

I’m hoping Bryant will clear up my queries concerning Lucretius. I’m ready to stand corrected about his lack of a coherent explanation for the clinamen. I would want to argue, however, that Bryant has misunderstood the second type of materialism listed by Jackson. Bryant writes:

Far from materialism being “always deployed against form” [as Jackson claims], materialism is instead the thesis that matter is always structured matter.  If materialism is deployed against anything, it would be against the schema offered by Plato in the Timeaus where it is suggested that, on the one hand, there is a formless material chora, and on the other hand a domain of idealincorporeal forms, and that a demiurge is required to mold this formless matter into formed matter.  What materialism contests is the incorporeality of form and the formlessness of materiality, instead arguing that all matter is structured matter.

Jackson describes the second type of materialism as that which posits an infinitely differentiating pulsation of formless energy at the base of all things. Whitehead’s ultimate principle of Creativity could easily be described this way. He suggests in Adventures of Ideas that Creativity is an adaptation of Plato’s “dark and difficult” concept of the Chora, or Receptacle. Plato describes the Receptacle as formless, but this is hardly the end of the story. The Receptacle is not simply the passive material from which a cosmos will be shaped, but the place within which the cosmos will come to be. Further, it is hardly “passive” at all, since it is abuzz with errant forces winnowing this way and that, grouping trace elements (pre-formed matter?) by their kind like a cosmogenic sieve, only to ceaselessly disturb every attempt at settled placement. When approaching Plato’s Receptacle, Bryant seems to fixate on one descriptor, “formless,” while ignoring the numerous indications in Timaeus that there is more to this choric “matter” than meets the eye. There’s no doubt Plato’s story could use some tweaking given our modern understanding. But let’s not forget he never claimed to be telling anything but a “likely story.” That is all we can hope to do today, even with our improved mathematics and increased data set.




Last night, I watched a short performance called “The Kepler Story” at the Morrison Planetarium in the California Academy of Sciences. The opening scene introduces Kepler’s essay on the crystalline forms of snowflakes. Kepler played with an ingenious pun between the Latin word “nix,” meaning snowflake, and the German word of the same spelling, meaning “nothing.” Is form really “nothing” at all? Kepler didn’t think so. He wondered why all snowflakes have six-sides, despite the fact that each one achieved its six-sidedness in a unique way. He searched for the “formative principle” of snow crystals. He considered the way water vapor evaporates due to heat. He considered the influence of impurities in the clouds where crystals grow.

“There must be a cause why snow has the shape of a six-cornered starlet,” Kepler wrote in his essay, De nive sexangula: “It cannot be chance. Why always six?” His answer: Hexagonal packing provides the tightest possible arrangement of water droplets. Matter has some intrinsic tendency to organize itself, taking great care to achieve geometrical harmony. Kepler’s conjecture only came to be proven basically correct several years ago. As far as Kepler was concerned, the “formative principle” at play giving shape to the water vapor had no purpose whatsoever. From his perspective, nature is “in the habit of playing with the passing moment.” Its reasons for taking shape are purely aesthetic.

John Caputo on Speculative Realism

Thanks to Adam/Knowledge-Ecology for pointing me to this one.

I really dig what he says about physics and science…

These posts are relevant to some of what Caputo has to say about correlationism, the philosophy of religion, and physical reality:





Reflections on Thomas Nagel’s mentions of Schelling and Whitehead in “Mind and Cosmos”

The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that it invades our understanding ofthe entire cosmos and its history. The physical sciences and evolutionary biology cannot be kept insulated from it, and I believe a true appreciation of the difficulty of the problem must eventually change our conception of the place of the physical sciences in describing the natural order.

So begins Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (2012). I have thus far only read small chunks of Nagel’s book. I also found myself reading several reviews, including this one by biologist H. Allen Orr in The New York Review of Books, this one by conservative journalist and former Bush Sr. speech writer Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard, and this one by Grant Maxwell.

Since I’m writing my dissertation on Schelling and Whitehead, I was curious to peek into Nagel’s text to see what he had to say about them. The largely negative response to Nagel’s book (at least among scientific materialists) is regrettable, but not surprising. I largely agree with Nagel’s criticisms, but I think there are more historical resources available for thinking natural teleology and the connection between consciousness and cosmos than he lets on. Much of the necessary philosophical work has already been done. The process tradition, including first and foremost the work of Schelling and Whitehead, represents an extremely well-developed alternative form of science that doesn’t fall prey to the theoretical or practical shortcomings of mechanistic materialism and yet remains fully consistant with all the latest scientific data.

He mentions Schelling on page 17:

The view that rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order makes me, in a broad sense, an idealist–not a subjective ide­alist, since it doesn’t amount to the claim that all reality is ultimately appearance–but an objective idealist in the tradition of Plato and perhaps also of certain post-Kantians, such as Schelling and Hegel, who are usually called absolute idealists. I suspect that there must be a strain of this kind of idealism in every theoretical scientist: pure empiricism is not enough.

I think it is interesting that he aligns himself with Schelling the Absolute Idealist rather than Schelling the Naturphilosoph. As I am coming to understand Schelling’s philosophy, its major contribution was not to Absolute Idealism (a school which belongs to Hegel), but to the process-philosophical tradition running through Bergson and Whitehead. For at least the late Schelling, as for Whitehead, Reason is not self-grounding, but dependent at every step upon experience. The transcendental structure of the rational mind and the intelligible structure of phenomenal Nature alike emerge from the “unprethinkable” depths of divine yearning. Reason, then, cannot provide the necessary and sufficient ground for Nature. Nature is no longer conceived by these thinkers as simply the sum total of phenomenal objects whose properties can be categorized by the mechanical understanding, nor as the finished whole or unified system that Reason thinks it ought to be. Schelling imagined Nature as productivity (Natura Naturans) as well as product (Natura Naturata), just as Whitehead imagined Nature as a Creative Advance conditioned by finite creatures. Rather than conceiving of Nature as an appearance projected by our own intellectual activity, or as a mere “check” upon our will, Schelling and Whitehead saw the human mind as an evolutionary expression of Nature’s own creative potency. So it is not “rational intelligibility” that is at the root of reality for Schelling, but the infinitely polarized unity of Nature’s original scission of forces, which is nothing other than the triune God’s eternal self-begetting as Nature (see this post on the influence of the theosophist Jakob Böhme on Schelling).

“…give me a nature composed of antithetical activities, of which one reaches out to the infinite while the other tries to intuit itself in this infinitude, and from this I will bring forth intelligence for you”

Certainly, Schelling spills much ink attempting to wrap words around the creative mystery of a self-intuiting infinity. He did not mean for us to conceive of it negatively as irrational or mystical (in the etymological sense of mystery or “mute”), but neutrally as other-than-ratio and so beyond the grasp of reflective thought. Instead, Schelling articulated a “metaphysical empiricism.” The immediately experienced fact of free will within us, which Schelling defined as the decision between good and evil, is a recapitulation at a higher potency of Nature’s original scission between gravity and light. It is out of this scission that all visible Nature continues to unfold. The scission is not approachable through theory, but only through art and action, through the cultivation of one’s aesthetic sensitivity and moral freedom.

As for Whitehead, Nagel mentions him in a footnote:

White­head argued that to identify the abstractions of physics with the whole of reality was to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, and that concrete entities, all the way down to the level of electrons, should all be understood as somehow embodying a standpoint on the world.

I agree with the second clause about electrons, but it seems in plain contradiction with the first clause about the abstractions of physics. Whitehead didn’t dismiss the abstractions of physics in an effort to make everyday psychological life the foundation of metaphysics. His goal was to re-interpret the abstractions of quantum and relativistic physics so that physics might become the most general possible description of concrete experience. I describe the result of his attempt to universalize an experiential physics in my essay “Physics of the World-Soul.”

James Hillman on Metaphysics and Cosmology

Back in 1983, Claremont Graduate School invited Whiteheadian philosophers and Jungian psychoanalysts to a dialogue concerning possible cross-fertilizations between process metaphysics and archetypal psychology (published as Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman in 1989). James Hillman gave the keynote, wherein he admitted that “something further [was] needed” than his typical psychologizing via negativa. His endless criticism, perspectivalism, and “seeing through” came to seem like “merely another strand of Western skepticism and nihilism” (216). He reports that it was in 1979, during a lecture by David Bohm at a conference in Córdoba, Spain, that he first recognized “the terrible need for metaphysics”:

“Bohm admitted frankly and sadly that physics had released the world into its perishing, and that physicists had neither learning nor ability to think the world out of its peril…we saw that our plight was way beyond the discipline of the men who had advanced this plight…The physical threat of the end of the world results from a metaphysical catastrophe” (215).

Hillman’s skepticism regarding traditional Western metaphysics is well-founded, of course. The Cartesian ego’s paranoid search for absolute certainty and formulaic Truth neglects the ambiguity of our world-in-process. The problem for the metaphysician, it seems to me, is not that Truth is “merely” a fiction–that the real world is forever beyond our grasp–but that that the world’s meaning is immense, immeasurable. There is too much meaning! It is for this reason that metaphysics has so often failed the polyphonic psyche and short-circuited its soul-making. The philosopher’s search for system, for some Grand Synthesis or Theory of Everything, is all too easily psychologized:

“Western metaphysics, with its inherently world-denying, abstractive tendencies has been thought mostly by men–from Plotinus through all the Catholic Schoolmen, through Hobbes, Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche to Wittgenstein and Santayana–men, furthermore, who did not wed, who did not spawn, who touched the world with mind in such a way that its existence became a ‘problem'” (218).

Hillman, then, seeks to return metaphysics to the world, to think the Real in service of soul-making. He is after a “metaphysical praxis,” a “psychological metaphysics” closely bound up with the practice of therapeia. Like the Jamesian pragmatism that Whitehead’s cosmology emerged out of, Hillman demands that we stay close to the practical effects of our abstractions. What do ideas do to soul, to world? Sticking close to the effects of metaphysical pronouncements means asking of their Truths, “True for who?” Metaphysics must situate itself in the mythic context of psychic life, where everything is personified and speaks through the masks of image and symbol. Truth is not “mere” fiction if the deeper structure of the universe is semiotic: The Truth is a story. Where literalisms (scientific, religious, or otherwise) would replace–or paste over–the given with its favored abstractions, a psychological metaphysics drops the bottom out of the given by forestalling the paranoid rush to formulaic certainty. Metaphysical knowledge is here checked by–not the limits of–but the infinity of metaphor.

“We practice an alchemical metaphysics: ‘account for the unknown in terms of the more unknown'” (220).

Hillman has always defended the poetic basis of mind. When called to make his imaginative psychology cosmological, he is forced to posit a poetic basis of the universe. He affirms the inherent intelligibility of things: “The cosmos has a logos” (225); but he asks why this intelligibility has become obscured to the modern mode of intelligence. Modernity has de-souled and disenchanted the world, as the story goes. We no longer have the perceptual capacity to connect soul to world, or world to soul.

“A living sense of world requires a corresponding living organ of soul by means of which a living world can be perceived” (225).

Hillman blames the empiricist tradition dating back to Locke for the death of such a living organ. He wishes Whitehead

“were still around to take down structuralism and the deconstruction that follows it, because they continue this indifference to the actual occasions of the phenomenal world” (225).

The seemingly outdated dichotomy between primary (“real”) and secondary (“illusory”) qualities continues to hold sway over the popular imagination, beholden as it is to the priesthood of physical scientists. At the cutting edge of continental philosophy, thinkers like Badiou and Meillassoux are even calling for an explicit return to such thinking, though now in an even more radical form where anything not reducible to mathematical notation is unreal. All of this is overcome by Whitehead’s illuminating analysis of the empiricists, Locke and Hume, in terms of their mistaken reversal of the two basic modes of perception (causal efficacy and presentational immediacy). I’ve explored his constructive critiques elsewhere.

For further links between OOO/SR and Hillman, see this conversation between Adam Robbert and I last year, as well as Graham Harman’s response.