Levi Bryant Misreading Whitehead?

Re-posting my comment to Bryant’s recent criticism of Whitehead and process-relational thought below:

I’m not so sure treating an actual occasion as a “bundle of prehensions” is at all faithful to Whitehead’s scheme. Maybe you arguing that some other aspect of his thought forces him into an inconsistency on this point? If that’s not what you’re suggesting, then I fail to understand how an actual occasion’s process of concrescence–which Whitehead insists is self-created and transcends the whole of the past universe in a moment of private self-enjoyment–could be reduced to a “bundle of prehensions.” Don’t forget Whitehead’s formula of Creativity: “the many become one, and are increased by one.” It seems to me you’re selectively ignoring Whitehead’s emphasis on the distinct and novel oneness produced by each occasion’s concrescence.

I think Bryant is making the same mistake about Whitehead that Harman makes. See my earlier post in response to Harman.

The Poetry of Philosophy: Wordsworth’s Poetic Vision of Nature in Light of Whitehead’s Cosmological Scheme

The aim of this essay is to read the nature poetry of William Wordsworth in light of the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, such that the epistemological and cosmological implications of the former are brought more fully into philosophical view. According to Victor Lowe, it is probable that no other man, save Plato, shaped the imaginative background of Whitehead’s outlook quite as profoundly as Wordsworth.1 This influence makes the task of this short essay far easier, since so much of what Whitehead labored to give clear conceptual expression to in his own work was originally awakened in him by the feeling for the universe that vibrates off the pages of Wordsworth’s poetry. In this sense, the task of this essay is the opposite of Whitehead’s: to translate the basic outlines of his philosophical scheme back into the cosmic visions and archetypal visitations expressed in Wordsworth’s verse.

One of the defining characteristics of Romantic literature is its exaltation of the figure of the philosopher-poet, the one who unveils the way in which, as Keats put it, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”2 The famous friendship and intimate artistic collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth provides an example of two minds who, while considered alone are great in their own right, considered together as a single mutually formed and imaginatively alloyed soul surely surpass the genius of any claimant of the title philosopher-poet to come before or after. According to Owen Barfield, the friendship of Coleridge and Wordsworth both “exemplified the contrast” and “deepened the affinity” between the poles of imagination, namely, self )–( world, or again, spirit )–( nature.3 Reconciling these two imaginative forces in one person is all but impossible, since “the finite activity of poetry, like every other motion, still requires a predominance, however slight, of the one pole over the other.”4 Coleridge had a more philosophical bent, tending toward reverential reflection upon the high station of spirit, while Wordsworth was easily charmed by the every day and more sensitive to the living depths of the natural world. Though Coleridge proved himself on occasion capable of penning the sublimest poetry, it could be said that, as a result of his philosophical tutelage, Wordsworth became the greatest of his poetic achievements. Indeed, Whitehead writes of Coleridge that, despite being influential in his own day, when considering “those elements of the thought of the past which stand for all time…[he] is only important by his influence on Wordsworth.”5

Wordsworth is perhaps the most esteemed nature poet in the history of the English language. For Whitehead, he is the chief exemplar of the Romantic reaction against the abstract mechanistic picture of nature fostered by the scientific materialism of the 17th and 18th centuries. He cites the famous line, “We murder to dissect” with qualified approval, agreeing with Wordsworth that “the important facts of nature elude the scientific method” even while he, a mathematical physicist as well as a philosopher, believes the specialized abstractions of natural science need not necessarily leave nature lifeless.6 Science can and should be reformed. Mechanistic science of the sort championed by the likes of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Laplace commits the fatal sin of bifurcating nature, isolating its objective mathematizable aspects by pealing away its sensual and moral layers, layers which found their home in a soul now entirely sealed off from the outside world. Concerning the ethereal hues of a sunset, the sweet fragrance of a primrose, or the melodies of a thrush the poets are all mistaken: from the point of view of scientific materialism, nature is “a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.”7 Contrary to the general thrust of natural science since its birth in the 17th century, Whitehead’s cosmological scheme is an attempt to systematize Wordsworth’s emphatic witness to the fact that “nature cannot be divorced from its aesthetic values, and that these values arise from the culmination…of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts.”8 In the jargon of his metaphysics, Whitehead saw in Wordsworth’s poetry “a feeling for nature as exhibiting entwined prehensive unities, each suffused with modal presences of others.”9 Hidden within this one short cryptic sentence are the major categories animating Whitehead’s entire cosmological system, including “actual occasions,” “eternal objects,” “internal relations,” and “concrescence.”

Before moving on to unpack Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, it is important to note that his allegiance to Wordsworth and the Romantic reaction is not at all to say that he has sided with subjectivism or idealism over the objectivity of science. The danger in aligning oneself against the mathematical abstractions of mechanistic science is that one rushes too quickly to adopt the opposite extreme, elevating personal emotion and individual will to such unwarranted heights that the entirety of the visible universe is made to seem a private projection, a mere appearance dependent upon the constructive activity of my mind. Wordsworth’s absorption in living nature–“an inmate of this active universe,”10 as he put it–all but inoculated him against this subjectivist over-reaction; but there are a few occasions when Wordsworth seems almost to become infected by other strains of the Romantic bloodstream, especially those emerging in the orbit of Kant’s transcendental idealism. Whitehead strongly positioned himself in opposition to Kantian, Fichtean, and Hegelian forms of idealism which can be read as attempting to derive the concrete and contingent existence of the universe from the abstract universal categories of thought.11 Not incidentally (considering the influence of Schelling on Wordsworth through the intermediary of Coleridge), the relationship of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism to Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is far more congenial, since unlike for Kant and Hegel, for Schelling “Nature is a priori.”12 Whitehead pithily suggests that his approach “aspires to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason.”13 In Kant’s first critique, experience is either translatable into conscious rational knowledge (Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas/representations” of geometrical space and time), or it is no experience at all. The vague but overriding feelings of nature’s creative rhythms and physical purposes always scintillating along the fractal horizons of consciousness are ignored in order to secure the certain knowledge of the rational, waking ego.14 The abyssal complexities of our aesthetic encounter with the sublime are left for the 3rd critique, the Critique of Judgment, but even here, where Kant’s powers reach their highest pitch, he pulls up short of the erotic receptivity that may have reconnected him with the animate intelligence of the cosmos. In book XI of The Prelude, as if speaking directly to Kant, Wordsworth pays homage to the “animation and…deeper sway” of nature’s soul while warning against the “narrow estimates of things” resulting from rational critique: “suffice it here/To hint that danger cannot but attend/Upon a Function rather proud to be/The enemy of falsehood, than the friend/Of truth, to sit in judgment than to feel.”15

While for Kant, “the world emerges from the subject,” for Whitehead, “the subject emerges from the world.”16 Whitehead’s conception of subjectivity is such that the order and meaning of our experience is originally given to us by the order and meaning of the surrounding actual universe. “[The subject] is not productive of the ordered world, but derivative from it.”17 Whitehead’s object-to-subject account of the formation of experience may seem too strict a rule for Wordsworth’s imaginative epistemology to obey, since for the latter the senses must be free to half-create and half perceive the world, as he suggests in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). This reversal of the vector of experience may at times prove to be a true tension in the two men’s outlooks, a tension worth untangling if only to discover a deeper commonality.

It would be an unfair reading of Whitehead, based on his reaction to much of German idealism, to neglect the extent to which his epistemology is fully awake to the creative and participatory role of the imagination in evaluating and synthesizing the facts of the actually existing world. His criticisms of idealistic accounts of perception result primarily from the mistaken prioritization of a derivative mode of perception, “presentational immediacy” over the truly primitive mode, “causal efficacy.” Presentational immediacy is a highly advanced form of experience available to conscious human beings. Dominated by the eyes (“The most despotic of our senses”18), it gives us a certain degree of reflective distance from the causal flow of cosmic vectors of inter-bodily emotion. These vectors, felt through the more original mode of perception, causal efficacy, generate the “mysterious presence of surrounding things”19: for example, the “voluntary power instinct” of the brooding Cliff that made the young Wordsworth’s hands tremble while rowing back to shore in his stolen skiff.20 Without the enlivening passion of causal efficacy, presentational immediacy becomes a fallen mode of perception, detached and cut off from intimacy with nature, her inner life reduced to the external relations of dead objects floating in outer space. Without the reflective disinterest of presentational immediacy, causal efficacy would swallow up our consciousness into the “dim and undetermin’d sense/Of unknown modes of being” that haunted Wordsworth for days after he returned the skiff to its mooring-place.21 Whitehead describes a third, hybrid mode of perception called “symbolic reference,” which plays a role akin to the synthesizing imagination, able to skillfully interweave physical prehensions with mental conceptions in order to produce heightened forms of aesthetic enjoyment and moral appetition. In Whitehead’s jargon, mental conceptions are also prehensions, or feelings, but instead of feeling concrete matters of fact, they feel eternal objects, or abstract forms of possibility. Whereas causal efficacy is “the hand of the settled past in the formation of the present,” presentational immediacy is the “[projection which] exhibits the contemporary world in its spatial relations.”22 Through the mixed perceptual mode of symbolic reference, habits of imagination are gradually acquired which bring forth the taken for granted world of every day experience.23 It is the synthesizing activity of this mode that Wordsworth refers to when he writes of how “The mind of Man is fram’d even like the breath/And harmony of music. There is a dark/Invisible workmanship that reconciles/Discordant elements, and makes them move/In one society.”24 A skillful poet is able to consciously moderate the synthetic activity of symbolic reference, “to keep/In wholesome separation the two natures,/The one that feels [causal efficacy], the other that observes [presentational immediacy].”25

It would be a superficial reading of Wordsworth to ignore the degree to which he wavers in his assigning of precedence to either the mental or physical poles of experiential reality. Just a line below his statement in Tintern Abbey about the creative element in perception, he writes of being “well pleased to recognize/In nature and the language of the sense,/The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse/The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being.” He finds that his mind is not only necessarily tied to his sensual encounters with nature (as it is for Kant), but that the language of sense has birthed and raised to maturity even the purest of his ideas from out of the womb of nature herself. Elsewhere, Wordsworth writes of the way a mountain range “By influence habitual to the mind/…shapes/The measure and the prospect of the soul.”26 Further conforming to Whitehead’s object-to-subject reading of the vector of experience, he writes: “From nature doth emotion come, and moods/…are nature’s gift.”27 But it could still be asked: is Wordsworth speaking here in a psychological or in an ontological register?

Whitehead’s characterization of Wordsworth’s poetry as exhibiting a sensitivity to the interpenetrating “prehensive unities” of nature, “each suffused with modal presences of others,” is meant to classify him as an ontologically committed panpsychist. His poetry is overflowing with hymns to the Anima Mundi, with references to the “the Life/ of the great whole,” and to the way “every natural form, rock, fruit or flower/…Lay bedded in a quickening soul.”28 Even here, however, just as Wordsworth appears to fully confirm his cosmological orientation, the tension of the poles of spirit and nature begin vibrating, as if hovering in superposition. Does Wordsworth mean that all these natural forms lay bedded in his quickening soul? In the same lines from The Prelude cited above, he could be read as congratulating himself for rousing nature from her sleep: “To every natural form…/I gave a moral life, I saw them feel,/Or linked them to some feeling…/…all/That I beheld respired with inward meaning.”29 But just a few lines later, Wordsworth again reverses the vector of his experience back from the idealistic to the cosmological pole, finding his mind “as wakeful” to the changing face of nature “as waters are/To the sky’s motion,” becoming to her activity as “obedient as a lute/That waits upon the touches of the wind.”30 Perhaps Wordsworth’s tendency to waver on this issue betrays one of the key differences between a visionary poet, focused on capturing the vividness of each fading moment, and a systematic philosopher, focused on characterizing the ultimate generalities characterizing all experience.

Though it is beyond the scope of the present essay, many parallels could also be drawn between Whitehead’s conception of a dipolar divinity and Wordsworth’s visions of the World Soul, “the Imagination of the whole.” Briefly, like all other actual occasions, Whitehead’s God has two poles, an intellectual/mental and an emotional/physical. Unlike all other actual occasions, God’s primordial pole is intellectual rather than physical, consisting in an evaluative ordering of all eternal objects. This ordering serves to condition the unfolding of the universe by making relevant novelties available to the concrescence of each finite occasion of experience. These finite occasions are free to make their own decisions and evaluations, but these decisions are made amidst the set of possibilities provided by the wisdom of God. Through God’s consequent pole, the creative becoming of the physical world is taken back up into divine experience as through a loving embrace to be harmonized with God’s primordial nature. To quote Whitehead at length: “God’s role is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it; or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.”31 The everlasting pulsations of divine concrescence are the macrocosmic analogy of Wordsworth’s autobiographical journey from childhood paradise, through the impairment and on to the final restoration of Imagination. “From love, for here/Do we begin and end, all grandeur comes,/All truth and beauty, from pervading love,/That gone, we are as dust.”32


1 Understanding Whitehead (1962), 257.

2 “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819).

3 What Coleridge Thought (1971), 90.

4 WCT, 90.

5 Science and the Modern World (1925), 79.

6 SMW, 79-80.

7 SMW, 55.

8 SMW, 84.

9 SMW, 80.

10 The Prelude (1805/1970), 27.

11 Process and Reality (1929/1979), 89.

12 First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (1799/2004), 198. Nature here is natura naturans, the generative abyss from which all finite form arises and into which it dies; this is akin to Whitehead’s category of ultimate generality at the base of all actuality, Creativity.

13 PR, 172.

14 Modes of Thought (1938/1966), p. 74-75.

15 The Prelude, 209.

16 PR, 172.

17 PR, 113.

18 The Prelude, 210.

19 SMW, 80.

20 The Prelude, 12.

21 The Prelude, 12.

22 Symbolism (1927/1955), 50.

23 UW, 184.

24 The Prelude, 10.

25 The Prelude, 238.

26 The Prelude, 125.

27 The Prelude, 218.

28 The Prelude, 37.

29 The Prelude, 37. Italics are mine.

30 The Prelude, 37-38.

31 PR, 525.

32 The Prelude, 233.