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

 

 

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.”

 

Adam at Knowledge-Ecology has posted some reflections on the issues at stake in the confrontation between philosophical realism and philosophical materialism. Levi Bryant (Larval Subjects) and Michael (Archive-Fire) place their bets on materialism, while Graham Harman (Object-Oriented Philosophy) and Steven Shaviro (Pinocchio Theory) prefer realism. This isn’t the whole story, however. When we shift to the issue of withdrawal (i.e., the accessibility of things), Shaviro, Bryant, and Michael all line up in opposition to Harman by arguing for the contingent, rather than absolute untouchability of things.This way of slicing the ontological opinion pie means that I remain most sympathetic to Shaviro’s way of thinking things.

I reject absolute materialism for the same reason I reject absolute idealism: these -isms only function semantically as productive concepts when they remain in dialectical tension with one another. Ultimately, they represent a coincidentia oppositorum, which is to say that, if you carry materialism to its logical conclusions, you only end up arriving at the premises of the idealist, and vice versa. As abstractions, these -isms seem mutually exclusive; but in practice, you can’t have one without the other, at least not if the philosophical sensibility in question is to avoid tilting at windmills as if they were the fiercest of giants. The physical sciences, for example, continue to assume a materialist ontology even while the majority of the mathematicians responsible for its theoretical structure remain committed Platonists. Similarly, the deep structure of Hegel’s supposedly absolute idealism provides the conceptual engine that still powers much contemporary Marxist materialism. Not to mention the profound influence on Hegel of Jakob Boehme’s incarnationalist doctrine of Geistleiblichkeit (that cosmogenesis is the ever-more adequate corporeal expression of divinity).

Adam is careful to avoid playing into any simplistic bifurcation of materialism from realism by suggesting that both -isms have shown themselves to be capable of successful deployment in the proper circumstances. At times, he seems to lean towards the realism of strange materialism. This leaning would seem to put Adam shoulder to shoulder with Bryant, who deploys a rather paradoxical materialism. The concept of matter succeeds, Bryant argues, precisely because neither philosophy or science have any idea what matter really is. I am not sure whether Bryant means to suggest that philosophy/science will never have insight into the nature of matter, or whether these simply do not have such insight as of yet. If he doesn’t mean the latter, then I fail to see how his position ultimately differs from Harman’s concerning the absolute withdrawal of things. If the “matter” of Bryant’s materialism withdraws from all attempts to think it, why call it materialism?

I affirm a relational ontology, but I do not do so in order to deny the reality of withdrawal. Following Whitehead, I am in pursuit of an ontology of autonomous organisms always already in relationships of mutual transformation. Organisms are radically open and promiscuous objects, always touching others as they are touched themselves; but even amidst this intersticial flesh of ecosystemic relations, individual organisms withdraw again and again in creative moments of subjective satisfaction. If this were not the case, the freedom and novelty of individual decision could not exist, since everything would be entirely conditioned, overwhelmed by its contact with everything else. A world where everything is fully deployed in its relations is a world where nothing happens to anybody because everything is happening everywhere, all the time. Instead of a naive holism, I seek to describe an ontology and enact a cosmos where hetero-erotic objects exist in transformative relation to one another’s auto-erotic subjectivity. Such dances between organisms (an organism, I’d suggest, could be thought of as both a subject and an object of experience) are perhaps best described ecologically (here I follow Adam). I may have more in common with the Whitehead of Science and the Modern World than that of Process and Reality, since rather than an ontology divided into actual occasions and eternal objects, I’d want to preserve a more concrete account of the real in terms of organism [on the other hand, we could just say that the division between actual occasions and eternal objects is metaphysically basic, while organism is cosmologically basic]. The life that emerges between organisms is where all the action is, whether that action is abstractly characterized as exclusively psychical or physical. Psyche and Physis ought to be complementary, rather than contradictory elements in any coherent cosmology. What Harman calls “endo-ontology,” I might characterize as the study of the way subjects transform one another into new objects. Such productive transformation is a result of the generativity of organisms, their tendency to reproduce with one another.

My organismic/ecological ontology has theological implications. I reject the notion that speculative philosophy should imagine itself to be made in the image of a spectator God (a “Kosmotheoros” to use Merleau-Ponty’s term) who stands above the world to observe it as if from outside. God is an organism like every other, suffering and celebrating the ongoing birth of the cosmos just as deeply as any other living being. The only difference between God and finite organisms is that God suffers the whole. It is not impossible, however, for a finite organism to experience its infinity in a gesture of cosmic compassion, since the panentheist God here depicted is all in all.

As Rumi put it,

Let the drop of water that is you
become a hundred mighty seas.

But do not think that the drop alone
becomes the Ocean—
the Ocean, too, becomes the drop!

Continuing the discussion that begin on Knowledge-Ecology earlier today, here are some highly speculative reflections after reading the first few pages of Graham Harman‘s Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005) again:

I’m reminded that we must deal with more than the absolute difference between objects and relations, but that between an object and itself. Objects withdraw not just from other objects, but from themselves.

“Objects withdraw absolutely from all interaction with both humans and nonhumans, creating a split between the tool-being itself and the tool-being as manifested in any relation. And along with this rift between objects and relations, objects are also split in themselves between their sheer unity as one object and their multiplicity of traits” (p. 5).

He goes on in ch. 6 to talk of the “ether”/”solar wind”/”vicar” connecting objects with each other. Despite the withdrawal of their “inner life,” they continue to “nurture or damage one another in every instant” (p. 73).

What does it mean to say an object withdraws from all of its relations if that same object withdraws also from itself? What, in the end, withdraws?

“In the sensual sphere, there is a difference between the banana as a single intentional object and the banana as a set of sensuous qualities. But there is also a lower floor of being, where we find a difference between the real banana as a single private reality, and that same real banana considered as a multitude of real attributes, quite apart from any relation that other entities may have with it” (. p. 77).

So there is an apparent banana, the appearance of that banana, a real banana, and a bundle of real banana qualities. This is Haman’s quaternity, a structure he admits may at first seem “bizarre.” With the second duality between the real banana and its many real qualities, he aims to describe “vacuous actualities,” objects never fully deployed in the world. This is a metaphysical, and not a physical, description. Which is to say that he of course realizes that the physical banana would be destroyed by digestion, or at least its matter transformed into something else, but nonetheless argues that the metaphysical banana–the idea/form of the banana–withdraws from digestion. It withdraws because many of its real qualities are not at all touched by chemical processes in the stomach. What does the dark stomach care about the pale white color of banana flesh?

Harman’s difficult to understand “vicarious cause” needs to account for more than just relations between one object and other objects, but the relations between an object and itself. The inner life of an individual object is itself some kind of dynamic “ether” that is never quite completely what it is (more like a power, as Iain Hamilton Grant might say). Harman calls this ether the “glue of the universe,” that which “binds macrocosm and microcosm alike” (p. 93). The ether provides this glue despite the fact that nothing ever really touches anything else, since all anything else can really feel is the pain or pleasure of the bleeding wound of quaternal crucification.

Carl Jung, from the Red Book

Harman outs himself as an occasionalist metaphysician, though he claims his recapitulation of this traditionally theological position can succeed without theology. Whitehead’s God function is, ultimately, what allows everything in the universe to touch. Whitehead assumes the cosmic solidarity provided by God’s Love is just as powerful, and metaphysically relevant, as the creative differentiation achieved by finite occasions. Finite occasions do withdraw from each other in Whitehead’s system, making them distinct individuals; but this private subjectivity is only a single phase in concrescence, a partial description of the fully crucified occasion known as a banana. For Harman, it is never just a banana, but a complexio oppositorum between a real banana, a sensual banana, a real banana’s qualities, and a sensual banana’s qualities. For Whitehead, the concrescence of any given banana-occasion into ONE banana also includes God, whose Love transfigures the ongoing inner life of the occasion into something cosmic, lifting it from the deadly cross of private time and space into the etheric dimension of universal feeling. Harman leaves out God and so of course ends up seeing radiant vacuums everywhere instead of little Christs. But perhaps the difference is merely nominal.

Adam over at Knowledge-Ecology has been in discussion with Michael at Archive Fire regarding the varieties of withdrawal in object-oriented philosophy. Below I’ve pasted my comment in response to Adam’s post:

I’ve just read Michael’s piece, and I agree with your assessment of the shortcomings of materialism. Materialism, as you’ve defined it (following Whitehead), only acknowledges the settled past of the universe, ignoring the ongoing process of evolution into the future. What is matter, anyways? Is it quarks? Is it atoms? Is it stars, cells, or animals? In one sense, it is all of these things, each of which has emerged at a certain point in a still ongoing irreversible evolutionary process. In another sense, it is none of these things, since materiality in general must be the creative process underlying the emergence of each of these specific forms. As such, we can never finally know what matter “is,” since it is impossible to predict what specific forms it will take in the future. Nonetheless, matter certainly is something. Perhaps it is this “something”–let’s call it the creativity of matter–that withdraws from every attempt to finally know it. Granted, this is a notion of withdrawal unlike Harman’s, since it points to something general underlying the appearance of any object, rather than something essential to an individual object.

I disagree with Michael’s account, specifically when he uses the example of digestion. When I eat an apple, the apple itself is not what interests my stomach. What interests my stomach are the nutrients necessary to maintain my body’s metabolism. Everything else that went into the apple is discarded as waste. And this is just the physical level; on the psychical level, the sweetness of the apple is only relevant to my tongue, the redness of it only relevant to my eyes, the smoothness to my skin, etc. These qualities are not “touched” by my stomach or the process of digestion. They are withdrawn from it. This is much like Harman’s favorite example of fire not burning cotton. It is a really compelling example of the meaning of withdrawal in the case of particular entities.

I remember when I first started reading Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics I was seeing Plato’s notion of forms everywhere. I’ll have to go back and do my homework to substantiate this, but it does seem to me that the eternal “form” of an apple is something like what Harman means by its withdrawn substance. Plato thought we had more than aesthesis when it comes to building up knowledge of a thing; which is to say that, though we cannot know the real apple using our senses, we can intuit its essence using the higher faculties of the soul. The soul, as Aristotle said, is potentially all things. So though the essence of the apple withdraws from our senses, we still know it intuitively by becoming it, by psychically participating in its form. This is how the pre-Kantian ancients would have thought of it, anyway.

“A good maxim,” writes Nietzsche,

is too hard for the teeth of time, and all the millennia cannot succeed in consuming it, though it always serves as nourishment…(Human, All Too Human).

Pierre Hadot, in his essay on the history of the idea of nature, The Veil of Isis (2006), leads his reader through 2,500 years of Western philosophical discourse, all of which could be read as a creative (mis)reading of Heraclitus’ maxim: “Phusis kruptesthai philei.” What Heraclitus actually meant by this statement (which, literally translated, says “Nature loves to hide”) is difficult to uncover. Hadot speculates that the most faithful reading of the aphorism is something like: “that which causes birth tends to cause death,” or similarly, “that which causes things to appear tends to make them disappear.” Such statements are typical of the paradoxical style of Heraclitus, for whom nature is an ever-living fire. This cosmic fire is constituted by a strife of opposites, which find dynamic wholeness in the continual flow of all things.

For ancients and moderns alike, nature was thought to contain secrets, or hidden reasons, that, if uncovered through magical, mathematical, or mechanical means, could empower and ennoble humanity. During the Scientific Revolution, attempts were made to “save the appearance” of natural phenomena by devising hypothetical accounts of the underlying causes responsible for producing their visible effects. Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis was not initially interpreted by the Church as a threat, since it was understood to be a sort of useful fiction that in no way restricted the omnipotent intellect of God, whose actual cosmic design was beyond human comprehension. Even Descartes was careful to limit his mechanistic explanations of phenomena by saying that these explanations simply aimed to reproduce the visible effects of nature without necessarily achieving these effects in the same way as the Creator. The Greek word for mechanics, mēkhanē, signifies “trick” or “ruse”; initially, then, applying the practical art of mechanical engineering (and the ancients were not as ill equipped in this art as is often thought) to the phenomena of nature was considered to be a kind of “trick” that enabled humans a limited degree of prediction and control over her processes. Only later, as, following the great successes of Newtonian mechanics, God came to be imagined as a retired engineer, was the ancient notion of “saving the appearances” replaced by the more modern notion of explaining appearances through mechanical causes. Eventually, theological speculation no longer seemed relevant to scientists. Laplace could dismiss God as an unnecessary hypothesis. Rather than a useful analogy between artificial and natural processes, nature was explicitly identified with mechanism.

This identification was not complete, however. Machines are intelligently designed, even if by the finite intelligence of human beings. They therefore operate as a result of more than just material and efficient causes, but also due to formal and final causes. Even if an omnipotent divine will is no longer a compelling explanation for the existence and organized growth of nature, there is undoubtedly still something about the causality of natural beings that remains mysteriously withdrawn.

How are we to conceive of this withdrawal in our contemporary context? Religious and secular explanations both being unconvincing, where is philosophy to turn for an adequate account of the nature of nature?

At the end of the preface to The Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty writes:

The world and reason do not present a problem; let us say, if you will, that they are mysterious, but this mystery defines them, and there can be no question of dissipating it by some solution. It is beyond solutions.

“True philosophy,” he continues, “is relearning to see the world.” Merleau-Ponty seems to be suggesting that what is needed is a form of seeing as comfortable with obscurity as it is with clarity. Nature is not a big secret that one day, through technical trickery or prosaic definition, might be finally unveiled. The being of nature is dark and withdrawn, even while its essence shines forth in an infinitely diverse array of colors and forms.

Nature is an indefinite series of enveloping veils, that, if removed in step, would lead back to the ground of being, which, for Schelling, is the cosmic anguish of a divinity that cannot escape its own ipseity. All the order and beauty of the manifest cosmos emerges from the “sacred shudder” of this unconscious God in response to its own uncanny existence. Nature seeks, through the development of its envelopment,

to show the Eternal as if in a mirror the most concealed thoughts of what lies innermost within its own self, thoughts that it itself does not know (Ages of the World, 2nd draft).

Nature, then, is the withdrawal of God from itself, the Othering of Self such that selfhood can come to exist in relation to itself, to know itself, even if this knowing remains forever mysterious. For the logician, this is entirely irrational, since the Eternal cannot be other than itself without being contradictory. For the poet, this paradox is the light of Truth herself at play in time.