Let’s not muddy the waters here. Whitehead says a number of specific things about entities and relations that aren’t really up for dispute. Thus when Vitale asks,

isn’t it trumpery to say that relationalism believes an old fashion, billiard ball and stick version of objects and relations, and continually beating us up when we continue to press that this isn’t so, in Whitehead, or for SR types of relationalism? I’m not sure relationalism was EVER this simple (even in the much maligned and rarely read Hegel . . .), but I believe the argument here is that relationalism is so passe because there’s no withdrawal, etc.

responding to Graham’s recent post, I’m led to conclude that either Vitale is being dishonest, or that he hasn’t been following the debates surrounding relationism closely, or that he just hasn’t read Whitehead very closely. Nowhere have any of us suggested the picture of relationism that Vitale attributes to us above. Rather, we’ve merely taken Whitehead at his word. Let’s take a look at what Whitehead actually says. In chapter 2 of Process and Reality Whitehead remarks that,

‘Actual entities’– also terms ‘actual occasions’ –are the final real things of which the world is made up. There’s no going behind the actual entities to find anything more real… The final facts are, all alike, actual entities; and these actual entities are drops of experience, complex and interdependent. (18)

So far so good, as we all want to get at the concrete things. However, the object-oriented ontologist will already be nervous about the thesis of interdependence. It seems that we need to learn a little more about Whitehead to determine whether we should be nervous. On the next page Whitehead goes on to remark that,

Each actual entity is analysable in an indefinite number of ways. In some modes of analysis the component elements are more abstract than in other modes of analysis. The analysis of an actual entity into ‘prehensions’ is that mode of analysis which exhibits the most concrete elements in the nature of actual entities… A prehension reproduces in itself the general characteristics of an actual entity: it is referent to an external world, and in this sense will be said to have a ‘vector-character’; it involves emotion, and purpose, and valuation, and causation. (19)

Here the object-oriented ontologist really begins to itch. The term “prehension” comes from “apprehension” and means to grasp or “prehend” something else. If actual occasions or entities are composed of prehensions (check) and prehensions are composed of references to the rest of the world (check), then it follows that actual occasions are relational through and through. But wait, isn’t this what the object-oriented ontologists have been objecting to again and again?

Later Whitehead will go on to say that,

It follows from the fourth category of explanation that the notion of ‘complete abstraction’ is self-contradictory. For you cannot abstract the universe from any entity, actual or non-actual, so as to consider that entity in complete isolation. Whenever we think of some entity, we are asking, ‘What is it fit for here? In a sense, every entity pervades the whole world; for this question has a definite answer for each entity in respect to any actual entity or any nexus of actual entities. (28)

Every actual occasion is thus internally related to the totality of the universe and has no independent existence apart from that totality. Finally, OOO will object to the 9th category of explanation where Whitehead writes:

That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming.’ This is the ‘principle of process’. (23)

While OOO certainly doesn’t reject the thesis that entities become, it does reject the thesis that entities are identical with the how of their becoming. I was produced by my parents but cannot be reduced to that history in any way, for example.

So let’s rehearse. For Whitehead, actual occasions are composed of their prehensions, which are their relations to the totality of the world or other entities in the universe. Moreover, for Whitehead entities cannot be detached from their relations. Finally, for Whitehead what entities are is identical to how they came to be.

By contrast, for OOO objects are independent of their relations or are in excess of their relations such that their being can never be reduced to their relations. They are, in principle, detachable from any relations they happen to exist in (and are therefore not irrevocably attached to their universe). And finally, while many of them do become (I’ll leave aside the vexed question of universals and eternal objects), they are irreducible to their becoming.

These are things that aren’t just being “made up”, nor are they straw men. They are what Whitehead actually argues and they mark the fault line between OOO and Whitehead’s relationism. Now here I expect Vitale to chastise me for telling him he’s wrong in his characterization of Whitehead or OOO, pointing out, as he’s done in public and email, that us mean philosophers read differently than other folks in the humanities who would never say someone else has misinterpreted a theory text. Aside from the fact that Vitale’s relativist criteria make any discussion impossible as for him opinion makes truth, I’ve been working primarily with people in the humanities outside of philosophy for over a decade and have had people from other disciplines often point out to me that my reading of another thinker is wrong. In other words, pointing out misinterpretations is not an exclusive domain of philosophy. Apparently he missed the Derrida wars which occurred primarily with people coming from outside of philosophy and where the philosophers were being told that we had Derrida all wrong. Vitale is entitled to his opinions but not his facts and Whitehead makes some pretty clear claims about relations and reality. Perhaps it’s not us Vitale disagrees with, but Whitehead.

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