Process, Relationality, and Individuality: Graham Harman and Alfred Norht Whitehead (response to Jonathan Cobb)

Relevant links to the argument between me, Levi Bryant, and Graham Harman:

Levi Bryant Mis-reading Whitehead?

Harman’s response to me

Whitehead’s Process Atomism (Response to Graham Harman)

Object as subject-superject, or why Harman is wrong about Whitehead

Occasionalism in Whitehead and Harman

Harman’s Crucified Objects and Whitehead’s God: More on Withdrawal



Whitehead’s Divine Function (response to Knowledge Ecology)

Adam/Knowledge Ecology has responded to my comment about the role of the divine in Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. Let me say at the get go that Whitehead himself acknowledged that he didn’t sufficiently work out the relationship between God and the World in Process and Reality. I approach Whitehead’s scheme, then, as a hacker might go to work on a buggy program, casting aside what doesn’t work and building on what seems most promising. I think there is something profound about his underlying intuition concerning the divine’s power as that of a persuader, rather than a coercer, even if his explicit formulations seem to fall short of a coherent description of how exactly this would play out metaphysically.

Whitehead’s dipolar deity is intended to be a derivative notion of his conceptual categories. He had far more to say about God’s primordial pole than God’s consequent pole; he mentions the latter only a handful of times, always obscurely, while the former, the primordial pole, fits relatively clearly into his conceptual apparatus as that which values a definite set of eternal objects to provide the aesthetic lures that are the condition for the possibility of a cosmos. God’s primordial nature is eternal and so conditions Creativity, translating its immensity into something that finite actual occasions can decide upon and enjoy as distinct qualitative moments of experience. God’s consequent nature, in turn, is conditioned by Creativity: despite God’s attempt to restrain its relentlessly blind rush toward novelty, Creativity nonetheless breaks through to disturb the ordered universe as the freedom of each finite actual entity to decide upon its own subjective form. Creativity is the constant disruption of the constancy that would otherwise reign over things from eternity. God isn’t just eternal, but also has a consequent pole, which is God’s passive reception of Creativity in the form of the free decisions of all actualities. In God’s consequent pole, God becomes a fellow sufferer with all other creatures in the trammels of physical time.

Perhaps “God”–a term weighed down by thousands of years of ontotheological baggge–is no longer appropriate as a descriptor. Whitehead suggests that his divinity is more like ancient conceptions of a World-Soul, or anima mundi, in that it is involved in and not external to the universe. Indeed, it is in some sense nothing other than the universe itself as a social actuality, or organismic togetherness. The divine is the cosmic animal, the universal organism.

Part of the reason Whitehead was lead to posit a divine function was that he saw no other way to coherently speak cosmologically. If there is no superordinate principle of valuation to bring all finite occasions into harmony, there is no cosmos. There is only the multitude of finite entities. Granted, the harmonious ordering of the universe so miraculously uncovered by the last several centuries of scientific investigation may be entirely contingent. Whitehead’s God is, after all, an accident of Creativity. There is nothing necessary about harmony. What, then, is responsible for an admittedly contingent harmony? Divinity cannot be marshaled as an explanation here, a move that is often and rightly criticized. There is a principle of irreducibility at work in Whitehead similar to that at work in object-oriented ontology described by Adam. For one entity or set of entities to explain another is akin to reducing the explained entity away. Whitehead’s philosophical method has nothing to do with explanation. He describes the task of philosophy as “sheer disclosure,” making it akin to poetry in the sense that its propositional expressions succeed only when they increase, rather than erase, our wonder at the astonishing fact(s) of existence.

To return to the question, then: what is responsible for the contingent order of the universe? Whitehead, like OOO, re-constructed causality in terms of aesthetics. Entities relate to one another erotically, not simply mechanically. All physical motion, active or passive, is emotion. Mechanical interaction is secondary to organic transaction, which is to say that internal relations supersede external relations. Every entity is quite literally inside of every other entity. A tension is generated within this mutual interiorization due to the desire of each entity to exist in and for itself apart from others, which is where the explosion of qualities described so beautifully by Harman (as a “sensual ether”) comes in. So, wherefrom harmony and order? From the erotic lure of beauty calling to each actuality non-coercively compelling it to dance in rhythm with its local nexus. Of course, notes of dissonance are often sounded amidst the song of the spheres, but at least (so far) on the macro scale, these dissonances have been gathered back up into a cosmic chord. For 14 billion years, cosmogenesis has remained harmonious enough to utilize disruption and chaos as an engine for the generation of higher forms of organization again and again. The dissonances erupting within the microcosm of human society are somewhat more troubling… Whitehead’s solution to the problem of evil is celebrated by many process theologians, but as I continue to study Schelling (who seems to have taken the difficulty of theodicy more seriously), its becoming apparent that perhaps more needs to be said about the proclivity of humanity to swerve away so drastically from cosmic harmony.  A problem for another post, perhaps… The ontological dimension of evil is admittedly an embarrassing issue to approach in a modern age as self-consciously philanthropic as ours.

Philosophy, society, politics and the decline of America

Jason/Immanence Transcendence brought my attention to this critique of Graham Harman‘s Object-Oriented Ontology. The critique, written by Alexander Galloway, complains that OOO’s lack of a political dimension makes it a nonstarter as a groundwork for philosophizing in public. In today’s global context, where neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have collided (and colluded) to bring Starbucks to Baghdad, I’d agree with Galloway that “a philosophy without a political theory is no philosophy at all.” Other thinkers associated with OOO, like Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects, have written about political questions far more extensively than Harman (which Galloway mentions), but I remain unconvinced that either Bryant’s politics or his ethical theory necessarily follow from his ontology. Bryant and I have discussed this underdetermination in the past in relation to his appropriation of Brassier’s ontology of extinction.

A rather boisterous discussion erupted among commenters beneath Galloway’s critique. Some were upset by Harman’s dismissive responses (HERE, HERE, and HERE), and took the opportunity to vent their frustration with how some in the OOO blogosphere seem unable to play nice with others. Jason made several substantive comments about moral nominalism in response to Bryant. His comments reminded me of a post made late last year on the same issue. Both are worth reading.

On a more personal note, since Tuesday I’ve been visiting my mother’s side of the family in Cincinnati, OH. I live in a bit of an political bubble in San Francisco surrounded by an eclectic mix of eco-Marxist radicals and psychedelic shamans. My trip to the post-industrial wasteland that is the tri-state area (Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky) has given me an opportunity to reflect on the sad state of American society. I visited my cousin and her two young daughters Tuesday evening and ended up talking politics and religion with her husband until 3AM. He served in Iraq with the Army for almost a year back in 2004-5. Despite his desire to continue to serve in some capacity, a knee injury prevented him from being redeployed to Iraq. His commanding officer gave him an ultimatum: suffer through the pain in combat or get the hell out of the Army. He was discharged, but not before being diagnosed by military doctors with “axis-2 PTSD.” Axis-2 is APA-speak for a form of PTSD compounded with a personality disorder of some type, which in my cousin-in-law’s case involves “sociopathic tendencies.” These tendencies were less noticeable to me this visit than they were 3 years ago (my last visit), but clearly he still hasn’t adequately re-adjusted to civilian life upon returning from war. One clue was the way he checked to see if a few Hot Pockets were cooked all the way through: pulling them out of the oven, he found the largest knife in the kitchen and preceded to forcefully disembowel them. Another clue is the room-sized armory he keeps behind lock and key upstairs.

He is certainly not an anomaly. At least 20% of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are diagnosed with PTSD. Particularly disturbing is the fact that, among female soldiers, more than 70% develop PTSD as a result of being sexually assaulted by other soldiers. I suggested to my cousin-in-law that the prevalence of PTSD is no surprise, since even before stepping foot in a war zone, basic training is in large part designed to prepare recruits for a sociopathic situation. He preceded to describe the rules of engagement issued to every soldier on a small laminated card. Basically, no one is to be trusted: even innocent looking women and children could have bombs strapped to them or have been instructed to shield shooters in public areas. Soldiers must be ready to kill anyone at any moment.

Our conversation drifted to domestic politics by way of my outrage over defense spending (if you include the “police actions” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East, defense accounts for more than half of all government spending). My cousin-in-law is rather conservative, though I have a feeling his political opinions come straight out of the mouth of a hand full of AM radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. For the most part, he is against anything and everything the big bad “government” wants to do, aside from build bombs and wage wars. I brought up the ecological crisis as something states, corporations, and individuals cannot respond to adequately without some sort of top-down influence from government. He was willing to admit that the EPA should regulate some forms of pollution, but he doesn’t think human beings are capable of changing the climate of the whole planet or driving other species into extinction. That scientific consensus considers climate change and mass extinction to be plain as day facts verified by empirical data hardly matters, since such scientists are just part of a vast liberal conspiracy to destroy the American dream and take over the world.

Needless to say, I was frustrated by the content of our conversation, even though the form was cordial enough. It’s made me realize that political discourse is way messier than most ontologies let on. I think the panexperiential process ontology I’ve been trying to develop on this blog with help from Schelling and Whitehead certainly has political implications [see Adam/Knowledge-Ecology’s recent post on panpsychism and politics], but how am I to justify these implications to someone who could care less about the abstract forms of reasoning characteristic of metaphysics? What do the negative determinations of the understanding or the constitutive relationality of finite actual occasions have to do with securing a job and raising a family? Blue collar Americans are more skeptical of the intellectual classes than ever before. I think Rick Santorum was basically correct when he said that a college education leads to liberalism. Unfortunately, college is too expensive for most blue collar students, and anyways, liberalism rests upon some Enlightenment assumptions about Reason and its relationship to Nature that make absolutely no sense to me philosophically. Indeed, these assumptions seem to be causally related to the social and ecological ills of our civilization. I just don’t know if we have another 300 years to wait for today’s subversive ontologies to trickle down into our legal and political discourse.

I think the philosophically-inclined political activist’s best bet is something like what Bruno Latour is doing with “political art.” As Schelling argued long ago, art is the eternal organon of philosophy, since only it is capable of making reason sensuous and mythology rational.

The Varieties of Causal Experience

Michael over at Archive-Fire has a new post up distinguishing his notion of epistemic withdrawal from Harman’s ontological withdrawal. While claiming to hold tight to an embodied account of mind, Michael nonetheless wants to carve out a distinction between two kinds of interaction: mental and physical. Mental interaction is always detached and abstract due to its linguistic and imaginal intangibility, while physical interaction is direct because it involves structural contact between entities. Michael accepts the generally Kantian construal of the real as existing forever beyond human knowledge: things withdraw absolutely, but only from our knowledge. Physically, when I grab my coffee mug, the atoms in my fingers are in direct physical contact with the electrons orbiting the atoms of which it is composed. Such physical relations, according to Michael, are causal, while mental relations are symbolic.

I discussed the difference between realism and materialism in this post last week. I affirmed an organic realism, and tried to explain why I reject both materialism and idealism, since each seems self-contradictory on its own. Follow the former to its final conclusions and you end up with the latter, and vice versa [For example, if our knowledge is forever limited, when we speak of the electron orbitals of atoms, are we not speaking of our conceptual models of matter, rather than matter in itself? If we can’t know what matter really is, what justifies our speaking of direct contact? Isn’t this just a subtle form of idealism?]. Michael describes his position as a kind of non-reductive materialism, leaning on the concept of emergence to account for mentality. I find emergence an indispensable concept for understanding evolutionary leaps like that from molecules to cells, or from single cells to multicellular life; but these are examples of organizational/structural emergence. I do not think emergence can account for mind in an otherwise merely material universe (“merely” material as in not the prehensive matter of Whiteheadian ontology). The emergence of mind would not simply represent the emergence of a more complex organizational structure, but an entirely new ontological domain. Is it really sufficient to say that mind emerges from otherwise insensate matter simply because that matter is structurally organized in a new way? I am unconvinced.

Instead of defining mind as essentially a linguistic phenomenon, as Michael does, I’d suggest that mind is primarily affective in nature. That is, thinking is an especially refined kind of feeling (a feeling of feelings, if you will). Rather than separate cognition and causality, I’d follow Whitehead’s illuminating distinction between “presentational immediacy” and “causal efficacy.” Whitehead critiques Hume’s account of sensory experience using this distinction: Hume’s analysis of his experience of, say, a glass cup in terms of raw sensory universals like “whiteness,” “roundness,” etc., Whitehead argues is actually derived from a more fundamental, causal mode of experience. Hume’s analysis of sensory experience remains on the level of “presentational immediacy,” which for Whitehead is a very rare, high grade mode of experience especially perfected by reflective, language-using human beings. Most of the time, we interact with the world via bodily perception, which is to say, we feel the causal force of the world directly and respond without having to break up that world into its raw sensory components. Hume’s analysis of experience is too abstract, which is why he ends up having to jettison causality all together. Whitehead notes Hume’s realization that we see the cup with our eyes, suggesting that he was close to grasping the causal efficacy of the body. But alas, Hume did not think through the implications of the causal efficacy of his body, the way causation was the condition making possible his abstract analysis of experience in terms of sensory universals. [See this post for a more in depth account of Whitehead’s response to Hume].

“Mind” and “matter” are dreadfully vague words, but when I speak of “mind” above, I am referring to everything from sensuality to conceptuality. Mind is anything that requires awareness. Surely, there are forms of awareness that are not linguistic. The feeling of another’s gaze, or of the wind moving the hair across your forehead, for instance. On the other hand, from the perspective of a pansemiotic paradigm (Peirce, or more recently, Hoffmeyer), all relations could be construed as sign interpretation.

Michael mentions Whitehead’s panpsychism as one of Harman’s “background assumptions,” but I don’t think its quite fair to call this an assumption. On the contrary, adopting some varient of panpsychism is the result of much conceptual struggle with mind-matter dualism.

Knowledge takes place at the level of abstract significations. And signification involves very different processes than those involved in basic physical interactions.

This has been a standard distinction since at least Descartes. But when faced with the intractable issue of having to account for mind, or even just basic sensation, in a universe otherwise composed of dead matter, what is to prevent us from re-thinking our ontology (a la Whitehead)? I’ve offered some reasons for rejecting the emergentist account of mind; I’d be curious to know Michael’s reasons for rejecting the panexperientialist account.

Occasionalism in Whitehead and Harman

An important discussion continues to unfold in the comment section of this post over at Knowledge-Ecology. We are trying to figure out what metaphysical work Whitehead’s eternal objects do, among other things.

Here is my last comment:

I think Whitehead gives you withdrawal without returning to an ontology of substances. Adam and I have been trying to figure this out for months, and I will admit that Whitehead does sometimes seem to reduce occasions to their relations, since in time (and his is a process metaphysics after all), no occasion or society of occasions ever remains identical to itself. There are no enduring substances, only enduring societies.

However, withdrawal can be saved due to the technical features of Whitehead’s system. Whitehead risks a set of abstractions by analyzing an indivisible moment of concrescence into its component parts. An occasion can be said to be withdrawn from its relations at a certain point in the process: just before it passes over from a subject to a superject; precisely when its relations are self-characterized or decided upon as the complex character of eternal objects to be included in its experience, there and then it is withdrawn from every other occasion. At this slice of time in the process of concrescence, abstractly analyzed, the occasion is dipping below the surface into eternity while still riding upon the wave of time. The “who” experiencing the world in this or that way at the molten core of the occasion is God; and though allured by the world, and the world by it, God is withdrawn from direct contact with it. God isn’t making a totally free decision in any given occasion, since it must deal with the emotional consequences of prior occasions.

We should not forget Harman’s fascination with occasionalism.

We all want some kind of withdrawal… the question for me is whether we want to bring back substance ontology or theology in order to get it. I’d rather do theology, maybe only because I’m more of a Platonist than an Aristotelian.

Here’s a Platonist for you:

“…every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany, that is, a divine apparition. For…the more secretly it is understood, the closer it is seen to approach the divine brilliance. Hence the inaccessible brilliance of the celestial powers is often called by theology ‘Darkness.’”
– John Scotus Eriugena, Periphyseon

Further evidence that Whitehead was already object-oriented…

From his 1927 lectures published as Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect.

While speaking about the way ordinary language can mislead us about the nature of reality, Whitehead begins reflecting on the common term “wall.”

“This so-called ‘wall,’ disclosed in the pure modes of presentational immediacy, contributes itself to our experience only under the guise of spatial extension, combined with spatial perspective, and combined with sense-data which in this example reduce to color alone. I say that the wall contributes itself under this guise, in preference to saying that it contributes these universal characters in combination. For the characters are combined by their exposition of one thing in a common world including ourselves, that one thing in which I call the ‘wall.’ Our perception is not confined to universal characters; we do not perceive disembodied color or disembodied extensiveness: we perceive the wall’s color and extensiveness. The experienced fact is ‘color away on the wall for us.’ Thus the color and the spatial perspective are abstract elements, characterizing the concrete way in which the wall enters into our experience. They are therefore relational elements between the ‘percipient at that moment,’ and that other equally actual entity, or set of entities, which we call the ‘wall at that moment.’ But the mere color and the mere spatial perspective are very abstract entities, because they are only arrived at by discarding the concrete relationship between the-wall-at-that-moment and the percipient-at-that-moment. This concrete relationship is a physical fact which may be very unessential to the wall and very essential to the percipient. The spatial relationship is equally essential both to wall and percipient: but the color side of the relationship is at that moment indifferent to the wall, though it is part of the make-up of the percipient. In this sense, and subject to their spatial relationship, contemporary events happen independently. I call this type of experience ‘presentational immediacy.’ It expresses how contemporary events are relevant to each other, and yet preserve a mutual independence. This relevance amid independence is the peculiar character of contemporaneousness. This presentational immediacy is only of importance is high-grade organisms, and is a physical fact which may, or may not, enter into consciousness. Such entry will depend on attention and on the activity of conceptual functioning, whereby physical experience and conceptual imagination are fused into knowledge” (p. 15-16).

Knowledge-Ecology on Alphonso Lingis: Cosmopolitical Selfhood and Ecology

Adam has posted a brilliant reflection on A. Lingis’ words about words. A few highlights:

  • “…words act as objects in the world and the manner by which they act is ecological. Words transform not just the environments which they disclose, but also feedback upon the one who uses them, transforming the subjectivity of the speaker in an ongoing and recursive way.”
  • “Words and worlds are indeed linked as independently existing, interactive actualities. The ontology which describes this relation is object-oriented. The ethics which organize the goals of such an inquiry are cosmopolitical. The way forward is ecological.”
I haven’t read much of Lingis’ work myself, but I’ve already been convinced, by Adam and others, that he is a luminary. He seems to me to have successfully melded art and science into cosmological poetry, in a way not unlike that other telluric poet, David Abram (see Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology). While I agree with Adam that words and worlds are co-enactive actualities, and that the earth and cosmos ought to be the model for our civilization, I am drawn more to the process-relational metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead and the powers ontology of Schelling than I am to the contemporary object-oriented ontologies of Bryant or Harman (Tim Morton’s version, which to me seems closer to the Romantic spirit of Schelling and Whitehead, is another story, but again, I haven’t yet been able to delve into his writing). I would seek a metaphysics that is no more object-oriented than subject-oriented. I would seek a metaphysics oriented toward the Absolute, toward God, that which is both subject and object and neither subject or object; a metaphysics open to Being itself, the IS!, the I AM!, at the root of all things. This is, after all, what language itself would tell us. The Big Other, the thing that every word in our language ultimately signifies if you trace its definition back far enough, is God, YHWH, the I am, which is also the Itself. Language is the creator of subject and object, of self and world, of word and reality.
The cosmopolitical issue, if we can call it that, is one of awakening to the mutual penetration of individual creativity and infinite universality. How am I to live in a city of people, like myself, in a universe so much older and wiser than we are? Not only does this require an ecological re-orientation, so as to bring modern humanity, organized according to the needs of empire, closer to the organization of ancient egalitarian kinship societies; the cosmopolitical task also requires a re-engagement with the deep wisdom of the cosmos, which consists of not just spiritual revelations regarding the eternal divine but scientific discoveries regarding the 14-billion year history of the visible universe.
Indisputably, the way forward is indeed ecological. Logos must be re-minded of and re-embedded in the Bodies within which it was born and into which it will die. Philosophy must become symphilosophy, as Schlegel suggested; our symbols must be made symbionts with the growing earth, seeds for its further flourishing.