Whiteheadian commentary on contemporary scientific cosmology: Are the fundamental constants changing?

The following is a lecture from a course I’m currently teaching called Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology: Toward a Physics of the World-Soul. Watch the PBS Space Time video first for context.

“The animal body is only the more highly organized and immediate part of the general environment for its dominant actual occasion [i.e., its consciousness], which is the ultimate percipient […] According to this interpretation, the human body is to be conceived as a complex ‘amplifier’ — to use the language of the technology of electromagnetism. The various actual entities, which compose the body, are so coordinated that the experiences of any part of the body are transmitted to one or more central occasions to be inherited with enhancements accruing upon the way, or finally added by reason of the final integration. The enduring personality is the historic route of living occasions which are severally dominant in the body at successive instants. The human body is thus achieving on a scale of concentrated efficiency a type of social organization, which with every gradation of efficiency constitutes the orderliness whereby a cosmic epoch shelters in itself intensity of satisfaction.”

-Alfred North Whitehead, Process & Reality, p. 119

Key terms:

1) Actual Occasions: the final realities of which the world is composed. Actual occasions are not “things” in space-time, but spatiotemporal events. Space-time is emergent from the relationships among actual occasions.

2) Eternal Objects: the “pure potentials” that characterize the experience of actual occasions. Eternal objects can be both quantitative/mathematical or qualitative (e.g., colors, sounds, tastes, etc.). They characterize the “how” of experience and have thus been described as “adjectival” and “adverbial” by Whiteheadian scholar Steven Shaviro. Eternal objects determine how actual entities relate to one another and “enter into each others’ constitutions” (PR, 148-149). An eternal object does not involve any necessary reference to a specific occasion of experience: an experience of two chairs and an experience of two cats are quite distinct experiences, but both ingress the same eternal object, “twoness,” that captures an identical essence participant in both situations. Eternal objects “ingress” into actual occasions, but don’t themselves cause actual occasions (Heller misleadingly claims that “an eternal object is a pure possibility which causes an actual entity to be what it is”; Whitehead is very clear that actual occasions are the only causes or reasons). 

How to think about the relation between actual occasions and eternal objects: Actual occasions, as the final realities of which the universe is composed, are self-creating buds of experience, each one uniquely itself even while it remains internally related to every other occasion in the creative community of the universe. Occasions are interrelated by way of the pattern of eternal objects characterizing for each of them the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the other occasions in their community. Eternal objects “interpret [occasions], each to the other,” such that they come to find themselves related to one another in an extended space-time continuum according to certain more or less stable geometric principles (SMW pgs. 137,145).

3)  Prehensions: If we ask what actual occasions are made of, the answer is “prehensions.” Prehensions are feelings that come in two pure forms: physical prehensions of already actualized occasions in our causal past, and conceptual prehensions of as yet unactualized possibilities (or eternal objects). Prehension is what allows actual occasions take one another up into their own being. It replaces the Cartesian notion of “representation,” whereby a mind was said to internally picture an external object. When an actual occasion prehends another occasion, it is not just constructing picture of that occasion, thus relating to it only indirectly; rather, it is feeling that occasion’s feelings directly. Each actual occasion is in some sense nothing but the multiplicity of prehensions of other occasions (as characterized adverbially by eternal objects) which it unifies. But in another sense, as a self-unifying creature, an occasion not only prehends and reiterates the realized spatiotemporal pattern of the settled past, it adds a novel actualization of value—itself—to the ongoing evolution of the universe.

4) Societies: Actual occasions group themselves together into societies. A society is a group of actual occasions that ingresses some shared defining characteristic or set of characteristics. These groupings are both spatial and temporal. Galaxies, stars, planets, organisms, and souls are all examples of societies of actual occasions.

9th International Whitehead Conference in Kracow, Poland

I’m headed halfway around the world today to present a paper at the IWC in Poland. Roland Faber, Catherine Keller, Herman Greene and others will be giving talks. I’ll do my best to record and/or live blog during their remarks.

I’ll be presenting a paper in the religion section on the secularization of God in Whitehead and Deleuze. I’ll post the final draft sometime this weekend and a recording of the Q and A next week.

Deleuze’s Pedagogy of Problematic Ideas as an Example of Etheric Imagination

Below is another section of my dissertation proposal…


In What Is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between a singular pedagogy of the concept and a universal encyclopedia of the concept.155 What does it mean to say that Deleuze’s philosophical method is pedagogical, rather than encyclopedic? It means that philosophical concepts are not catalogued in advance, they are individually invented as needed to dissolve the poorly posed problems that emerge in the course of research.156 In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze makes a similar distinction between learning and knowledge.157 Knowledge is the memorization of specific facts and general laws that can only pretend to final comprehension, while learning is the incarnation of Ideas, an ongoing apprenticeship to problematic concepts that initiates one into the sub-sensory creativity of paradox. “Philosophers are always recasting and even changing their concepts,” Deleuze writes. “Sometimes the development of a point of detail that produces a new condensation, that adds or withdraws components, is enough. Philosophers sometimes exhibit a forgetfulness that almost makes them ill. According to Jaspers, Nietzsche ‘corrected his ideas himself in order to create new ones without explicitly admitting it; when his health deteriorated he forgot the conclusions he had arrived at earlier.’ Or, as Leibniz said, ‘I thought I had reached port; but…I seemed to be cast back again into the open sea.’”158 In his preface to Difference and Repetition, Deleuze describes his method of writing from a place of ignorance; like Leibniz, he is always beginning again, lost at sea. Deleuze writes: “How else can one write but of those things which one doesn’t know, or knows badly? It is precisely there that we imagine having something to say. We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms the one into the other. Only in this manner are we resolved to write. To satisfy ignorance is to put off writing until tomorrow–or rather, to make it impossible.”159

The philosopher can only begin in media res, like Odysseus, lost at sea. He first finds himself there at the elemental limits of things, at the oceanic horizon of earth with only the starry heavens as a compass. He first task is to steady his metaphysical gaze upon these limits, thereby stilling the nausea associated with rootlessness. His final task is an infinite one, not merely to steadily “hover between heaven and earth,” or to “drop anchor permanently in some safe cove,” but to “dare to meet the truth freely,” without fear “of shipwreck on the rocks or sandbars”; the philosopher, continues Schelling, must “risk everything, desiring either the whole truth, in its entire magnitude, or no truth at all.”160

The philosophical researcher must accept that he can only begin writing in muddled confusion of poorly posed problems. This is the initial condition of the philosopher after the end of philosophy, when the history of philosophy, with all its truth and good sense, no longer claims authority over thinking. The history of philosophy no longer provides today’s thinkers with a steady stairway to the heaven of eternal ideas. Though it is true, as Whitehead suggests, that “philosophy is dominated by its past literature to a greater extent than any other science,”161 my attempt to philosophize anew must find a way to allow this history to function as collage does in painting: like a palette of personalities available for dramatizing concepts in response to the problems that matter today.162

“Method,” writes Deleuze, “is the means of that knowledge which regulates the collaboration of all the faculties. It is therefore the manifestation of a common sense or the realization of a Cogitatio natura, and presupposes a good will as though this were a ‘premeditated decision’ of the thinker.”163 Contrary to the pretense of a scientific method seeking certain knowledge, a pedagogical method is attentive to the fact that “learning is, after all, an infinite task.” For Deleuze, “it is from ‘learning,’ not from knowledge, that the transcendental conditions of thought must be drawn.”164 This pedagogical transcendental is not based on Kant’s fixed table of logical categories, the a priori conditions for all possible knowledge of objects, but rather on an experimental set of aesthetic categories, the genetic conditions for new becomings-with objects. Deleuze mentions Whitehead’s categoreal scheme as an example of the new transcendental aesthetic, where unlike representational categories, it is not only possible experience that is conditioned, but actual experience. He calls Whitehead’s categories “phantastical,” in that they represent novel creations of the imagination never before encountered by philosophers.165 For Whitehead, because each experient is a perspective on the world and an element in the world, the categories of an experientially adequate philosophical scheme must elucidate the “paradox of the connectedness of things:–the many things, the one world without and within.”166 In other words, while Whitehead accepts modern philosophy’s focus on the self-created perspective of the subject–that, in some sense, the world is within the subject (as in Kantian transcendental idealism)–he holds this insight in imaginative polar unity with the common sense presupposition that the subject is within the world. This refusal to remove subjective experience from the world of actual entities bring’s Whitehead’s panexperientialism very close to Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism.

The mind is not the only problem solver; it is not the intelligent observer and manipulator of a stupid and passive nature. The etheric formative forces driving nature’s evolutionary “education of the senses” are just as creative and problematically arrayed as are the imaginative forces shaping the historical education of the human mind. As Deleuze argues, “problematic Ideas are precisely the ultimate elements of nature and the subliminal objects of little perceptions. As a result, ‘learning’ always takes place in and through the unconscious, thereby establishing the bond of a profound complicity between nature and mind.”167 Mind is simply a more complexly folded nature. The proper maintenance of their conscious complicity depends upon what Deleuze calls the “education of the senses,” by which he means the raising of each power of the imagination to its limit so that their mutual intra-action quickens the whole into the creation of difference in itself. The path of the learner is “amorous” (we learn by heart), but also potentially fatal,168 since the creation of difference–though free from the anxieties of method, free of having to know with certainty–for precisely this reason always risks the creation of nonsense, or worse, the descent into madness. But in the end, the researcher must take these risks, since “to what are we dedicated if not to those problems which demand the very transformation of our body and our language?”169 Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism does not privilege the faculty of thought, as does Kant’s transcendental idealism. While thought concerns itself with the domains or levels of virtuality (what Whitehead refers to as the hierarchy of eternal objects, or definite possibilities), it is the faculty of imagination that “[grasps] the process of actualization,” that “crosses domains, orders, and levels, knocking down the partitions coextensive with the world, guiding our bodies and inspiring our souls, grasping the unity of mind and nature.”170 Imagination, continues Deleuze, is “a larval consciousness which moves endlessly from science to dream and back again.”171 Deleuze’s faculty of imagination is no mere conveyer belt, transporting fixed categories back and forth along the schematic supply line between thought and sensation. By bringing the imagination face to face with the wilderness of existence, Deleuze forces it to rediscover the wildness within itself. Faced with what Schelling called “the unprethinkable” (das Unvordenkliche)172 sublimity of the elemental forces of the universe, the imagination becomes unable to perform its domesticated role in service to the a prioris of the understanding. “That which just exists,” writes Schelling, “is precisely that which crushes everything that may derive from thought, before which thought becomes silent…and reason itself bows down.”173 It is upon confronting the unprethinkability of these elemental forces that “imagination finds itself blocked before its own limit: the immense ocean, the infinite heavens, all that overturns it, it discovers its own impotence, it starts to stutter.”174 But, continues Deleuze, imagination’s sublime wounding is not without consolation: “At the moment that imagination finds that it is impotent, no longer able to serve the understanding, it makes us discover in ourselves a still more beautiful faculty which is like the faculty of the infinite. So much so that at the moment we feel our imagination and suffer with it, since it has become impotent, a new faculty is awakened in us, the faculty of the supersensible.”175

Like Whitehead, who wrote in The Concept of Nature that “the recourse to metaphysics is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena,”176 Deleuze’s pedagogical metaphysics quickens the philosophical imagination’s powers into “a harmony such that each transmits its violence to the other by powder fuse.”177 Rather than converging on a common sense, Deleuze’s education of the senses approaches the point of “para-sense,” where “thinking, speaking, imagining, feeling, etc.” overcome themselves to create new forms of perception responsive to encounters with paradoxical Ideas and capable of incarnating them as meaningful symbols through a process of learning.178 Deleuze would here seem to approach Steiner’s spiritual science, where it is thought that “there slumber within every human being faculties by means of which individuals can acquire for themselves knowledge of higher worlds.”179 Like Steiner, Schelling’s understanding of the Idea’s gradual incarnation in the course of an evolutionary cosmogenesis leads him to argue that “the time has come for a new species, equipped with new organs of thought, to arise.”180

Deleuze’s pedagogy of the concept and problematic method of enduring within the symbolic fields constellated by encounters with Ideas is especially relevant to my research on the process philosophical tradition, since, according to Deleuze, “problems are of the order of events–not only because cases of solution emerge like real events, but because the conditions of a problem themselves imply events.”181 For Whitehead, as for Deleuze, “the ultimate realities are the events in their process of origination.”182 Whitehead calls this process of origination concrescence. Concrescence refers to the process of “growing together” whereby “many become one and are increased by one.”183 Each individual concrescing event, according to Whitehead, “is a passage between two…termini, namely, its components in their ideal disjunctive diversity passing into these same components in their [real] concrete togetherness.”184 Similarly, Deleuze describes the incarnation of a problematic Idea as an event that unfolds in two directions at once, along a real and an ideal axis: “At the intersection of these lines,” writes Deleuze, “–where a powder fuse forms the link between the Idea and the actual–the ‘temporally eternal’ is formed.”185 Whitehead’s evental ontology, wherein eternal objects intersect with actual occasions in the process of concrescence, can be read in terms of Deleuze’s account of the incarnation of Ideas, whereby concrescence becomes a temporary solution achieved through the condensation of the fragmentary multiplicity of past actualities and future possibilities into a precipitated drop of unified experience. The problematically condensed occasion of experience cannot endure in its unity long since it is perpetually perishing into objective immortality, leading “the solution to explode like something abrupt, brutal and revolutionary,”186 becoming experiential debris to be gathered up again by the occasions that follow it.

Deleuze also describes incarnating Ideas as a two-faced expression of both the power of love (the ideal principle which seeks to progressively harmonize the fragmented times of past and future to form a unified “temporally eternal” solution) and the power of wrath (the real principle which angrily condenses these solutions until they explode, creatively issuing in revolutionary new problems). He argues that the most important aspect of Schelling’s process theology is his consideration of these divine powers of love and wrath, where love relates to God’s existence and wrath to God’s ground.187 Schelling conceives of both love and wrath as positive powers which therefore do not simply negate one another as opposed concepts in a Hegelian dialectic of contradiction, where wrath would struggle with love before both were sublated in some higher Identity. Rather, the eternal encounter between divine love and divine wrath leads to their mutual potentialization into a dynamic succession of evolutionary stages in nature (Stufenfolge). “These two forces [infinitely expanding love and infinitely retarding wrath], clashing or represented in conflict, leads to the Idea of an organizing, self-systematizing principle. Perhaps this is what the ancients wanted to hint at by the soul of the world,” writes Schelling.188

For Deleuze, “Ideas no more than Problems do not exist only in our heads but occur here and there in the production of an actual historical world.”189 Ideas are not simply located inside the head. Nor can Ideas be entirely captured inside the grammatical form of a logical syllogism, even if that syllogism is dialectically swallowed up and digested in the course of history by an Absolute Spirit. Even though the primary instrument of speculative philosophy is language, Ideas should never be reduced to propositions, nor should philosophy be reduced to the labor of “mere dialectic.”190 Dialectical discussion “is a tool,” writes Whitehead, “but should never be a master.”191 According to Schelling, the age old view that “philosophy can be finally transformed into actual knowledge through the dialectic…betrays more than a little narrowness.”192 That which gets called from the outside “dialectic” and becomes formalized as syllogistic logic is a mere copy, “an empty semblance and shadow” of the authentic mystery of the philosopher, which, for Schelling, is freedom. Freedom is the original principle underlying both mind and nature, the archetypal cision generative of all Ideas through the “secret circulation” between the knowledge-seeking soul and its unconsciously knowing Other.193 The authenticity of the philosopher’s “inner art of conversation” depends upon this doubling of the soul into I and Other through an act of imagination. Without this imaginal doubling, the original cision of freedom is repressed and philosophy devolves into the formulaic dialectical refinement of the customary sayings and conceptual peculiarities of contemporary commonsense.194

Dialectic leads at best only to a kind of Urdoxa, or original opinion: “The dialectic,” writes Deleuze, “claims to discover a specifically philosophical discursiveness, but it can only do this by linking opinions together. It has indeed gone beyond opinion toward knowledge, but opinion breaks through and continues to break through. Even with the resources of an Urdoxa, philosophy remains a doxography. It is always the same melancholy that raises disputed Questions and Quodlibets from the Middle Ages where one learns what each doctor thought without knowing why he thought it (the Event), and that one finds again in many histories of philosophy in which solutions are reviewed without ever determining what the problem is (substance in Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz), since the problem is only copied from the propositions that serve as its answer.”195

As Whitehead describes it, “the very purpose of philosophy is to delve below the apparent clarity of common speech”196 by creatively imagining “linguistic expressions for meanings as yet unexpressed.”197 Whitehead’s adventure of Ideas, like Schelling’s and Deleuze’s, is not a search for some original opinion, or for the “complete speech” (teleeis logos) of encyclopedic knowledge.198 Ideas are not merely represented inside an individual conscious mind, they are detonated in the imaginal depths of the world itself. Exploding Ideas seed symbolic vibrations that echo along the cosmic membrane (or “plane of immanence”) and unfold at the level of representational consciousness as a profound complicity between mind and nature: Ideas generate synchronicities.

It follows that Ideas, for Whitehead as for Deleuze, “are by no means essences,” but rather “belong on the side of events, affections, or accidents.”199 As Steven Shaviro writes of Whitehead’s “eternal objects,” they ingress into events as “alternatives, contingencies, situations that could have been otherwise.”200 Ideas, that is, are tied “to the evaluation of what is important and what is not, to the distribution of singular and regular, distinctive and ordinary.”201 “The sense of importance,” writes Whitehead, “is embedded in the very being of animal experience. As it sinks in dominance, experience trivializes and verges toward nothingness.”202 The Western philosophical tradition’s obsession with pinning down general essences instead of open-endedly investigating particular experiences–its emphasis on asking “what is…?” instead of “how much?,” “how?,” “in what cases?” in its pursuit of Ideas–has fostered only stupidity, erroneousness, and confusion.203 “Ideas emanate from imperatives of adventure,” writes Deleuze, not from the banality of encyclopedic classification.204 The mistaken identification of Ideas with dead essences has lead to the inability of modern philosophy to grasp the utter dependence of rationality on “the goings-on of nature,” and to the forgetfulness of “the thought of ourselves as process immersed in process beyond ourselves.”205

Despite the shared conceptual emphasis of much of Deleuze’s, Schelling’s, and Whitehead’s philosophical work, Deleuze’s dismissive attitude toward methodological knowledge in favor of a culture of learning may at times fall prey to Whitehead’s “fallacy of discarding method.” Though Whitehead was critical of tradition-bound and narrow-minded methodologies as well (as is evidenced by his corresponding “dogmatic fallacy”), he distances himself from philosophers like Nietzsche and Bergson (perhaps Deleuze’s two most important influences) because they tend to assume that intellectual analysis is “intrinsically tied to erroneous fictions” in that it can only proceed according to some one discarded dogmatic method.206 “Philosopher’s boast that they uphold no system,” writes Whitehead. “They are then prey to the delusive clarities of detached expressions which it is the very purpose of their science to surmount.”207 “We must be systematic,” continues Whitehead, “but we should keep our systems open [and remain] sensitive to their limitations.”208


155 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 12.

156 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 16.

157 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 164.

158 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 21-22.

159 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, xxi.

160 Schelling, “Of the I as Principle of Philosophy” (1795) in The Unconditioned in Human Knowledge (1980), 64.

161 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 229.

162 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, xxi.

163 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 165.

164 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 166.

165 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 284-285

166 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 228.

167 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 165.

168 Deleuze, Difference & Repetition, 23.

169 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 192.

170 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 220.

171 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 220.

172 “Das Unvordenklichkeit” is, according to Dale Snow, “one of the most difficult German expressions to translate.” He suggests it might be “somewhat clumsily…rendered as ‘the unpreconceivability of Being,’ implying that there is always that in reality which will remain beyond thought” (Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism (New York: SUNY, 1996), 235n8. My translation of “das Unvordenkliche” derives from Bruce Matthews, who renders it as “that before which nothing can be thought” (Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy: Life as the Schema of Freedom (New York: SUNY, 2011), 28.

173 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Matthews, II/3, 161.

174 Deleuze, Kant seminar (4/4/1978); http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=65&groupe=Kant&langue=2 [accessed 4/26/2013].

175 Deleuze, Kant seminar (4/4/1978); http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=65&groupe=Kant&langue=2 [accessed 4/26/2013].

176 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.

177 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 193.

178 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 194.

179 Steiner, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds, ch. 1 [http://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA010/English/RSPC1947/GA010_c01.html]).

180 Schelling, Einleitung in die Philosophie (1830), trans. Grant, Philosophies, 55.

181 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 188.

182 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 236.

183 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

184 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 236.

185 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 189.

186 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 190.

187 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809).

188 Schelling, On the World Soul, transl. by Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 145.

189 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 190.

190 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 228.

191 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 228.

192 Schelling, Ages of the World, xxxvii.

193 Schelling, Ages of the World, xxxvi.

194 Schelling, Ages of the World, xxxvii.

195 Deleuze, What Is Philosophy?, 80.

196 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 222.

197 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 227.

198 See Glenn Magree, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, intro.

199 Deleuze, Difference and Reptition, 187.

200 Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics, 40.

201 Deleuze, Difference and Reptition, 189.

202 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 9.

203 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 188-190.

204 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 197.

205 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 8.

206 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 222.

207 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 222.

208 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 6.

[Conclusion] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Conclusion: Towards a Physics of the World-Soul

“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.” -Whitehead239

 “The religious insight is the grasp of this truth: That the order of the world, the depth of reality of the world, the value of the world in its whole and in its parts, the beauty of the world, the zest of life, the peace of life, and the mastery of evil, are all bound together–not accidentally, but by reason of this truth: that the universe exhibits a creativity with infinite freedom, and a realm of forms with infinite possibilities; but that this creativity and these forms are together impotent to achieve actuality apart from the completed ideal harmony, which is God.” -Whitehead240

“This, then, in keeping with our likely account, is how we must say divine providence generated the actual world as a truly living thing, endowed with soul and intelligence.” -Plato241

Whitehead suggests that Newton’s Scholium and Plato’s Timaeus “are the two statements of cosmological theory which have had the chief influence on Western thought.”242 Although the Scholium provides “an immensely able statement of details” applicable to the deduction of truths within a specific domain of physical activity, its deductive prowess “conveys no hint of the limits of its own application.”243 Newton’s abstract conceptions of space, time, and matter as ready-made, and of eternal laws imposed by a transcendent designer, were undeniably useful, in that they provided the paradigmatic basis for two centuries of scientific progress. But the tremendous instrumental success of the Newtonian scheme had the practical effect of leading many to fall into the fallacy of misplaced concreteness by overgeneralizing its simplified abstractions as if they could explain the full complexity of concrete reality. “The Scholium betrays its abstractness,” writes Whitehead,

by affording no hint of that aspect of self-production, of generation, of φύσις, of natura naturans, which is so prominent in nature. For the Scholium, nature is merely, and completely, there, externally designed and obedient.244

As was discussed in the prior section, Whitehead’s generalization of evolutionary theory requires that both potentiality and actuality be ingredient in any concrete depiction of nature. Nature as already produced, as natura naturata, as simply there and entirely actualized, provides only half the picture. Unlike the static cosmos of Newton, who Whitehead believes would have been confused by the modern doctrine of evolution, Plato articulated a cosmological scheme involving the emergence of order out of an original chaos, an account which already implicitly suggests an evolutionary process.245 There are aspects of Plato’s Timaeus that may seem foolish today, but “what it lacks in superficial detail,” according to Whitehead, “it makes up for by its philosophic depth.”246 This depth has allowed Plato’s speculative cosmology to outlast Newton’s more arbitrary construction. The theory of cosmogenesis offered by the latter, involving “a wholly transcendent God creating out of nothing an accidental universe,” has been abandoned by contemporary physicists and process theologians alike as gratuitous.

Plato’s account of cosmogenesis, in contrast, avoids the Newtonian theory of creatio ex nihilo. Instead, the cosmos is said to emerge from the interplay of divine intelligence (νοῦς) and physical necessity (ἀνάγκη), such that the divine cannot violently command but must erotically persuade the cosmos to take shape out of chaos.247 The Greek word ἀνάγκη means not only “necessity,” but also connotes “need” or “urge”: apropos Whitehead’s creative retrieval of Plato’s scheme, this suggests that God, whose primordial conceptual pole is itself deficient in actuality, necessarily experiences a yearning after concrete fact.248 This yearning is productive of the consequent physical pole of God, which lovingly receives the freely actualized decisions of every finite occasion, no matter how discordant, into the harmony of its completed nature.249 “The action of God is its relation,” writes process theologian Catherine Keller,

–by feeling and so being felt, the divine invites the becoming of the other; by feeling the becoming of the other, the divine itself becomes…[affirming] an oscillation between divine attraction and divine reception, invitation and sabbath.250

Their are many other parallels to Whitehead’s cosmotheogony in Timaeus. The usual translation of one particularly relevant passage is as follows:

The god wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad so far as was possible, and so he took over (παραλαμβάνω) all that was visible–not at rest but in discordant and disorderly motion–and brought it from a state of disorder to one of order…251

The phrase “took over” (παραλαμβάνω) is misleading if interpreted only actively and not also passively: in this case, as both taking over responsibility for forming, and at the same time receiving the givenness of chaos.252 This double sense of παραλαμβάνω mirrors Whitehead’s dipolar conception of divinity as both conceptually active in envisaging the abstractive hierarchy of eternal objects and physically passive in receiving the multiplicity of finite concrescent occasions into its everlasting concrescence. The divine, for both Whitehead and Plato, is not an all-powerful creator, but an all-preserving co-creator:

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.253

Although Plato attempts in Timaeus, and Whitehead in Process and Reality, to articulate the most rational account possible of the genesis of the universe, in the end they found it necessary, due to the obscurity of their topic, to speak mythically by telling a “likely story” (εικώς μύθος). The Greek word εικώς is sometimes translated as “probable,” meaning likely but not entirely certain (“it goes something like this…”). As with the translations above, this choice can be misleading. The translation of εικώς as “likely” conveys the superficial meaning of “probable,” but this rendering should not obscure the subtler meaning of “likeness,” closely associated with the Greek word for “icon” or “image” (εἰκών). In Plato’s cosmogenic myth, the universe is said to be the most beautiful image that it was possible for the divine to co-create. The beauty of a thing being a result of the noetic order and harmony it radiates, it follows that the divine had to find some way to imbue the cosmic image with intelligence. Because “νοῦς [intelligence] cannot be present in anything without soul [ψυχή],” the God made the universe as a living creature or animal (ζῷον), a being endowed with soul.254

It is at this point that a tension emerges in Plato’s story. Although not all-powerful, the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus is described as a maker, or artisan. It is strange that the Cosmic Animal, or World-Soul, is said to have been made by the Demiurge, since normally living creatures are not fabricated by an artisan, they are born. This raises questions about how Plato conceives of divinity. “To find the maker and father of this universe is hard enough,” writes Plato, “and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible.”255 There has been much commentary over the ages concerning the meaning of this double designation of the Platonic God as both “maker” and “father.” Plutarch’s interpretation is helpful, if not entirely elucidatory:

[In] the case of a maker, his work, when done, is separated from him, whereas the origination and force emanating from the parent is blended in the offspring…which is a…part of the procreator…[The] cosmos is not like products that have been molded and fitted together but has in it a large portion of vitality and divinity, which god sowed from himself in the matter and mixed with it.256

The Demiurge, then, is a maker, but a fatherly maker whose life force is wedded with that which has been brought to birth. Still, it seems awkward, to say the least, that the cosmos is said to have been born from a single male parent. Plato resolves this tension by introducing another cast member into his cosmogonic drama: the Receptacle (ὑποδοχή), or “wetnurse of all becoming.”257 Whereas the fatherly Demiurge is said to beget the beautiful form of the cosmos, the motherly Receptacle is said to bear it.258 Plato’s account of the Receptacle is meant to be an accessible image for a closely related, but far more obscure concept, that of the Khora (Χώρα). The Khora is described as the “third kind” mediating between the eternal being of the Ideas and the becoming of the cosmic image. “Its nature,” writes Plato,

is to be available for anything to make its impression upon, and it is modified, shaped and reshaped by the things that enter it…The things that enter and leave it are images of those things that always are [Ideas/ειδών], imprinted after their likeness in a marvelous way that is hard to describe…It is in fact appropriate to compare the receiving thing to a mother, the source to a father, and the nature [physis/φύσις] between them to their offspring.259

The Cosmic Animal or World-Soul, then, is the offspring of the khoric mother and eidetic father. While standard readings of Plato’s written corpus tend to fall into a two-world interpretation, where physical becoming is said to poorly imitate perfect metaphysical being, ambiguities in Plato’s account make it difficult to determine whether, in generating an ensouled cosmos, the separation between the eternal Ideas and the becoming of the physical cosmos is canceled.260 From Whitehead’s perspective, this ambiguity can be hermeneutically massaged to save Plato from the incoherence of dualism. After all, Plato himself explicitly disclaimed “the possibility of an adequate philosophical system” that might permit the “variousness of the Universe…to be fathomed by our intellects.”261 Whitehead’s reformed Platonism insists upon the worldly immanence of the divine, thereby erasing any ultimate separation between the Demiurge and the Receptacle. Instead, their supposed offspring, the World-Soul, is said to supply the universe’s harmonious tendencies through the dipolarity of its own nature. Conceiving of the World-Soul as an emanation issuing from a transcendent deity, as some Platonic interpreters have done, “obscures the ultimate question of the relation of reality as permanent with reality as fluent”; the coherence of Whitehead’s scheme requires, in contrast, that the Cosmic Animal be understood as a mediator, sharing in the natures of eternity and time alike.262 The Cosmic Animal is not a free creation of an acosmic divine architect, but a creature of Creativity.

Whitehead reads Timaeus as offering an account of a World-Soul

whose active grasp of ideas conditions impartially the whole process of the Universe…[and] on whom depends that degree of orderliness which the world exhibits.263

Without this active grasp by the living intelligence of the mediating World-Soul, the ideas would remain frozen and lifeless and would have no way of characterizing actuality or partaking in the creative process of cosmogenesis. Plato further describes the way the Cosmic Animal “contains within itself all the living things whose nature it is to share its kind.”264 As Whitehead puts it, the organic process of each actual occasion “repeats in microcosm what the universe is in macrocosm.”265 It is this correspondence between the World-Soul and the varying grades of finite souls, including humans, that affirms the co-creative role of every organism, no matter how seemingly insignificant: “all [play] their part in conditioning nature by the inherent persuasiveness of ideas.”266 An erotic ferment inwardly permeates every creature, persuading all ever onward toward novel intensities of harmonic experience. In this sense, Eros, the divine element in the world, functions less to preserve stability than to evoke intensity.267 For example, even stars, our sidereal ancestors, are not everlasting: only by way of their sacrificial death could the heavier elemental creatures required for biological life have been brought forth. Similarly, the upward trend of biological evolution towards more complex species depends upon a selective process whereby the inability of an individual organism to adapt its way of life to changing circumstances “[entails] the death penalty for impertinence.”268 The cosmic desire for the intensification of experience is more powerful than the private fear of death. “It is in this way,” writes Whitehead,

that the immediacy of sorrow and pain is transformed into an element of triumph. This is the notion of redemption through suffering which haunts the world.269

Whitehead calls the process of erotic evocation of intensities by the World-Soul, whereby egoistic aims are sublimated by their inclusion in a greater whole, a “Supreme Adventure.”270 He describes the Adventure as an inverted renovation of Plato’s Receptacle, a “medium of intercommunication” necessary for the unity of all things.271 While the Receptacle is “void,” “bare of all forms,” “and abstract from all individual occasions,” the Adventure includes “the living urge towards all possibilities…[realizable by] the [actual] occasions of the advancing world each claiming its due share of attention.”272 The divine dimension of the cosmos, the World-Soul, is the “Great Fact” explicatory of our Supreme Adventure. As discussed above, the divine nature is dipolar, including a primordial and a consequent aspect, or as Whitehead also describes them, an “initial Eros” and a “final Beauty.” Whitehead’s poetic genius reaches its highest pitch when he reflects upon this Great Fact in the concluding lines of Adventures of Ideas:

It is the immanence of the Great Fact including this initial Eros and this final Beauty which constitutes the zest of self-forgetful transcendence belonging to Civilization at its height. At the heart of the nature of things, there are always the dream of youth and the harvest of tragedy. The Adventure of the Universe starts with the dream and reaps tragic Beauty. This is the secret of the union of Zest with Peace:–That the suffering attains its end in a Harmony of Harmonies…In this way the World receives its persuasion towards such perfections as are possible for its diverse individual occasions.273

While the World-Soul’s primordial valuation of the multiplicity of eternal objects is unchanging “by reason of its final completeness,” its consequent feeling of the evolving multiplicity of actual occasions remains always incomplete.274 In this sense, although the community of finite organic occasions makes up the unity of the Cosmic Animal, the latter “is not a static organism”; rather, “[it] is an incompletion in process of production.”275 Process theologian Roland Faber has described Whitehead’s theology of becoming as an “eschatological ad-vent” wherein the divine is caught up in the always ongoing adventure of all that was, is, and will be.276 The ensouled universe is therefore best described not simply as Whole, or as One, but as an

open movement of wholeness that cannot be united by any rational account [because it] harbors the Eros of unpredictable novelty and incommensurable diversity.277

Whitehead’s emphasis on openness and diversity makes comparisons with neo-Platonist schemes of the emanation of the Cosmic Animal from the “One beyond being and non-being,” as Plotinus and Proclus often described it,278 rather troublesome. Nonetheless, physicist Simon Malin argues that Whitehead’s approach is in some ways complemented by such schemes, wherein a process of divine effulgence or “overflowing” leads to the ordered involution of a series of stages:

Thus the One produces Nous, Nous produces Soul, Soul produces nature, and nature produces the sensible world…In the case of the World Soul…it is the contemplation of the perfect intelligence and order of the Nous that gives rise, as a kind of unintentional overflow, to the order of nature.279

While some analogy can be drawn between the Nous and Whitehead’s conception of the primordial nature of God, in the emanationist scheme, the many actual occasions of the physical world are given no agency or co-creative role whatsoever, nor is God attributed with a consequent nature allowing it to become-with the many occasions of the world as our fellow-sufferer. Whitehead dismissed such overly rationalized schemes because they lack the experiential adequacy demanded by our religious intuitions of a God who feels and can be felt, and our aesthetic intuitions of a continually creative cosmos. “God is in the world, or nowhere,” writes Whitehead,

creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts…In so far as man partakes of this creative process does he partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is his immortality, reducing the question of whether his individuality survives death…to…irrelevancy. His true destiny as co-creator in the universe is his dignity and his grandeur.280

The rationality of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme remains provisional, experimental, imaginative, and always pluralistic. It is an “adventure of hope,” not a search for the certainty of a final systematic theory that would “explain away” mystery.281 For Whitehead, not only does philosophy begin in wonder, “at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”282 Whiteheadian rationality is guided by a unwavering commitment to relationality, whereby “there is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself.”283 To search for a “beyond” is to violate the rationality of relationality. Instead of anxiously running from the abyssal chaos at the root of all things in search of the secure Ground offered by traditional accounts of a One beyond being, or an omnipotent Creator, Whitehead celebrates the “within-beyond” of a groundless “creative drive undermining any static dichotomy between cosmos and chaos.”284 God, a creature of Creativity like each of us, suffers and enjoys the unpredictable adventures of a chaosmos in which “everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal.”285


239 Whitehead, The Aims of Education, 164.

240 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 106.

241 Plato, Timaeus, 30b-c.

242 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

243 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

244 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

245 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93, 95.

246 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

247 John Sallis, Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 91.

248 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 33.

249 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 349.

250 Keller, Face of the Deep, 198.

251 Plato, Timaeus, 30a.

252 Sallis, Chorology, 57.

253 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346.

254 Sallis, Chorology, 57-58.

255 Plato, Timaeus, 28c.

256 Plutarch, Platonic Questions, II, 1; quoted in Sallis, Chorology, 52n7.

257 Plato, Timaeus, 49a.

258 Sallis, Chorology, 58n14.

259 Plato, Timaeus, 50c-d.

260 Sallis, Chorology, 69-70.

261 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961), 52. Whitehead is here referring to Plato’s discussion in his Seventh Letter written to Dion’s followers.

262 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 130.

263 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 147.

264 Plato, Timaeus, 31a.

265 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 215.

266 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 148.

267 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 105.

268 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 112.

269 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 350.

270 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 294-295.

271 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 134.

272 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 295.

273 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 296.

274 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 345.

275 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 214-215.

276 Roland Faber, “De-ontologizing God: Levinas, Deleuze, and Whitehead,” in Process and Difference: Between Cosmological and Poststructuralist Postmodernisms, eds. Catherine Keller and Anne Daniell(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 222-223.

277 Roland Faber, “Surrationality and Chaosmos: For a More Deleuzian Whitehead,” in Secrets of Becoming: Negotiating Whitehead, Deleuze, and Butler (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 158, 163.

278 Following Plato, Republic 509b and Parmenides 137cf.

279 Simon Malin, Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality, a Western Perspective (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2012), 201-202.

280 Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, 297.

281 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42; Adventures of Ideas, 174.

282 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168.

283 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

284 Faber, “Surrationality and Chaosmos,” 165.

285 Borges, “Happiness,” 441.

Whitehead’s Process Atomism (response to Graham Harman)

Graham Harman has jumped in offering his own response to my recent comment directed at Levi Bryant regarding his interpretation of Whitehead.

The core issue, for Harman, is whether Whitehead’s position is ultimately reducible to some form of relationism, wherein an actual occasion is no more than the sum of its prehensions, or whether Whitehead’s accounts of an occasion’s self-creation and self-enjoyment are enough to preserve some sort of individual withdrawal, thereby allowing genuine novelty to erupt in the course of cosmogenesis. Without such withdrawal, says Harman, there could be no change at all, much less novelty, since each actual occasion would always already be related to every other actual occasion. Without points of rupture in the continuum of relations, nothing new, nothing different, could ever emerge. Harman writes:

Change obviously occurs, and in my view Whitehead has a surprisingly difficult time accounting for it, despite the common impression that he is a philosopher of process and change (he is actually a remorseless philosopher of static instants, just like Heidegger– another philosopher who is wrongly viewed as a thinker of time). You can’t just say “of course Whitehead knows that things change,” and then hypostatize that awareness by positing concepts such as “concrescence” and “enjoyment” and dodging the question of whether they are prehensional or something more than prehensional (both of which lead to severe problems for Whitehead).

I’m honestly not sure what Harman is getting at by saying Whitehead is a remorseless philosopher of static instants. As far as I’m aware, Whitehead is a process philosopher, such that the relational flux of the cosmic nexūs is the foreground of his cosmology. His understanding of the universe of classical physics is similar to Bergson’s: physical science had become increasingly adept at spatializing time, allowing it to view nature denuded of value, quality, and duration. This lead to all sorts of metaphysical paradoxes, the results of badly analyzed composites and abstract bifurcations.

On the other hand, Whitehead was unwilling to follow Bergson’s anti-intellectualism. Picking up where Bergson left off (with his important critique of the philosophical tradition’s habit of backgrounding fluency in favor of the clear and distinct stasis of abstract categories like “extension”), Whitehead employs his own form of intellectual intuition to further differentiate fluency into two kinds (PR, 210):

1) concrescence (=”the real internal constitution of a particular existent”; i.e., the individual final causes of the universe), and 2) transition (=the perishing of a particular existent’s process, thereby “constituting that existent as an original element in the constitutions of other particular existences elicited by repetitions of process”; i.e., the transfer of inherited efficient causes through the universe). The continuity of the universe is preserved by the process of transition, while the withdrawal of individual occasions, and therefore the potential for novelty, is preserved by the process of concrescence. Unlike transition, concrescence is not simply prehensional. “Each actual occasion defines its own actual world from which it originates. No two occasions can have identical actual worlds” (210). Concrescence is the process by which any given actual occasion prehends the many occasions of its extensive continuum into some new definite form of unity (=achievement of subjective value) to be added to the ongoing advance of nature.

This differentiation between concrescence and transition allows Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, despite its generally processual orientation, to remain nonetheless explicitly atomic. This comes through clearly enough in Process and Reality, where Whitehead writes: “the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism” (35). He is lead to this conclusion largely as a result of the discoveries of quantum and relativity theories concerning the nature of time. 20th century science was forced to reject two ideas that had long provided its metaphysical first principles: 1) the idea of nature at an instant, and 2) the idea that the universe had a single continuous time flow.

On this point, Whitehead writes (35):

“There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming. The actual occasions are the creatures which become, and they constitute a continuously extensive world. In other words, extensiveness becomes, but ‘becoming’ is not itself extensive.”

He concludes, as I quoted above, that atomic discontinuity is an ultimate metaphysical truth. The continuously extensive world with its universal relationality he considers an accident, not a metaphysical necessity: “continuity is a special condition arising from the society of creatures which constitute our immediate epoch” (36). The advance of nature involves an inheritance of rhythmic pattern from one concrescent occasion to the next. Between occasional beats, intervals are opened up, leaving room for improvisation.

Let me just add that, while I’ve obviously been influenced a tremendous amount by attempting to think with Whitehead, I realize that he is not infallible. My disagreement with Harman’s and Bryant’s critique is not a result of my wanting to protect a sacred cow from blasphemers; it is rather a result of wanting to be clear about the specifics of the metaphysical scheme that Whitehead has left us. I’m all for finding flaws and hacking the system to make improvements and to keep it relevant. But in this particular case, I just don’t think it is at all fair to Whitehead’s scheme to claim he reduces individuals to the flux. It seems like a simple mistake to me, easy enough to correct with a moderately careful reading his texts. Perhaps there is something deeper to the critique that Harman and Bryant are leveling, but they seem to have aimed it poorly; at least, I haven’t felt the force of the blow yet…

P.S.- Aside from Process and Reality, another good place to turn for Whitehead’s account of “forms of unity” and the relationship between the two kinds of fluency is chapter 5 of Modes of Thought, “Forms of Process.”


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.