One of the central claims of Whitehead’s thought is that “actual occasions” (his name for “entity”) are the ultimate reasons or grounds of all explanations. “…[A]ctual entities are the only reasons; so that to search for a reason is to search for one or more actual entities” (PR, 24). Alongside of Process and Reality I’ve been reading The Metaphysics of Experience: A Companion to Whitehead’s Process and Reality by Elizabeth Kraus. I recommend this study highly for anyone interested in Whitehead. If others have references to other secondaries I’d be interested in hearing about them as well. I believe some of these remarks are relevant to a discussion of holism and reductivism unfolding over at the Weblog, and especially Dominic Fox’s comments, with which I disagree as they are stated. At one point she gives an outstanding gloss on Whitehead’s conception of philosophy and what it means to give an account, so I’ll just post it here in full, with a few comments at the end, as I have nothing to add to it. I apologize for the lack of commentary on the passages that follow. Occasionally I come across something I find striking and really can do little more than point and grunt like the apes dancing about the obelisk in 2001.

In Modes of Thought Whitehead describes the task of philosophy as ‘the understanding of the interfusion of modes of existence’ (MT, 97). But what does it mean to understand? If the world is taken in its classical sense, any grasp of what Whitehead purports to do in PR and of the way in which he views his speculative scheme as an interpretation of reality is vitiated at the outset. In its Aristotlean meaning, to understand anything is to know it in its causes: to grasp principally its form and purpose. Knowledge, thus interpreted, is a moving away from the thing in its concrete singularity, which qua individual is unintelligible, toward a grasp of the universals which it embodies. To know an object is to be able to place it in its appropriate category, having delimited its genus and differentia. When based on this notion of understanding, philosophy is viwed as purely abstract, a priori, apodictic, and deductive science, whose certainty and purity are a function of its remotion from the concrete.

Whitehead totally repudiates this conception of the philosophical enterprise and the notion of understanding from which it springs. he is a Platonist with respect to knowledge, realizing that it is not theoretical understanding but rather the ability to rule well. If it entails a departure from the concrete, that departure is justified only in virtue of a subsequent return. Even the departure itself takes a different form from that evidenced in the traditional notion of abstract, in which the individuating notes of an object are left aside in the endeavor to seize its universal essentiality. For Whitehead, the movement of abstraction is indeed toward higher generalities, but in the move the individuality of the starting point is not analyzed away. In his view, a fact is understood when it can be placed in a wider systematic context which gives an account of its interconnections with other facts (my bold). The tecnique of analysis presumes that facts are isolated, self-contained units whose character can be revealed by the systematic dissection, and it thereby loses itself in barren abstractions. The true activity of understanding consists in a voyage to abstraction which is in fact a voyage to the more fully concrete: to the system in which the fact is enmeshed. The system as conceptualized may be more abstract than the fact itself in that it is more general, but the real systematic context is more concrete, and its elaboration yields more about the existential relations of the fact.

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When a given systematic context itself is taken as a fact, it demands a voyage to a still wider context for its comprehension. Thus there is a dialectical movement in understanding, a movement encompassing the exploration and explication of wider and wider contexts, each step of which further enriches the knowledge of the original fact. The task of philosophical understanding is to criticize these contexts in the sense of constructing a conceptual macro-system capable of elucidating their interrelationships (my bold).

However, no philosophical system can completely formulate the ultimate context, for any conceptual scheme, as an eternal object, is still abstract, lacking the full particularity of the fact which it purposes to interpret. It is asymptotic to reality rather than a dogmatic statement. Therefore, the philosophical voyage, the attempt to formulate the most general relationships exemplified in every fact, can never reach its destination; the perfect system is unattainable. ‘The object of this [speculative reason] is not stability but progress’ (FR, 82).

Nor is the philosophical enterprise an end in itself. If the goal of knowing is to rule well, then the function of philosophic reasoning is ‘to promote the art of life’ (FR 4) by rendering human life and the experience of the world meaningful. A philosophy is successful when it expresses the ‘general nature of the world as disclosed in human interests’ (FR 85), and its success transforms life from absurdity to aesthetic achievement.

In the phraseology of PR, ‘Speculative Philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be intepreted’ (PR, 3). Just as knowing is neither analysis nor classification, so ‘interpreting’ is not explaining. To explain is to take apart the puzzle, discover how the separate elements are put together, reassemble it, and put it away in a box labeled ‘done’. Though a pleasant diversion, such an exercise leads nowhere, for it reveals nothing about other puzzles save the fiction that they too have discrete parts and can be disassembled and reassembled at will. To interpret, on the other hand, is to search out the more general law of which the fact is an instance, and to see that law as predictive of still other instances. Thus interpretation moves from the particular to the universal and back to the particular, in a passage Whitehead likens to the flight of an airplane. A philosophical scheme takes off from experience, is formulated in the stratosphere of abstraction, and returns to experience for the verification of its predictions. It is ‘a matrix from which true propositions applicable to a particular circumstance can be derived’ (PR 8). The landing not only verifies the abstract formulation, but also reveals otherwise unnoticed elements in the initially observed facts, since observation tends to be selective and to overlook what is irrelevant to practice. Philosophy is thus a voyage toward abstraction in order to render experience more concrete. (41-43).

Kraus’ remarks here resonate nicely with much of what I have recently written on abstraction, stupidity, and pedagogy (here and here), and also accords well with what I have been outlining with respect to constellations (here and here and here). To understand something is not to understand that thing in isolatation, but rather how it enters into systematic relations with other actual occasions. As such, an actual occasion belongs to a constellation of actual occasions that make it what it is. It is worthwhile, here, to think of the Rat Man in Freud. The Rat Man seeks analysis with Freud after being traumatized by the sadistic drill instructor’s story of a cruel torture where a bucket filled with rats is placed over a man’s ass and they burrow into him. After hearing this story the Rat Man engages in all sorts of bizarre activities trying to pay another person back for a pair of glasses, to whom he does not really owe any money. The question, then, is why did this story have such a profound impact on the Rat Man? The story is an actual occasion, and the question is one of understanding the impact of this story on another actual occasion (the Rat Man himself). As the analysis proceeds we find that the story of the torture enters into all sorts of systematic relations with the signifiers organizing the Rat Man’s unconscious. In the German language, the signifier “Ratte” refers not only to rats, but also resonates with other signifiers pertaining to money, debt, gambling (Spielratte), and so on. The Rat Man’s father had had a gambling problem as a younger man that had caused problems in his own military duties and romantic affairs.

The point here is that we cannot understand the Rat Man’s reaction to this story without understanding the constellation of relations through which this story is prehended by the Rat Man. This must be referred to as a constellation because it is unique to the Rat Man. The story does not resonate with the unconscious of others in a similar way as their unconscious is not organized in the same way. When we take the story in abstraction, divorced from the nexus of relations to which it belongs, we cannot but be baffled by his reaction. Indeed, an abstract thinker might be inclined to look for constitutional problems in the Rat Man and deride him as being of weak character for being unable to bear hearing such a story. I take it that a good deal of work undertaken by the literary critic is similar to the sort of work undertaken by the psychoanalyst. A novel or body of work by an author is always a singularity and as such must be approached in a singular fashion. Perhaps what the critic searches for are those singular relations that render intelligible the work of an author or reveal the systematic organizaton of a particular body of work. Marx does something similar. Confronted with the historical actuality of a particular way of life (Feudalism, capitalism, etc), Marx asks “what are the systematic relations that explain just why this form of social organization has appeared at just this particular point in time?” Or, in our context, “what set of processes and relations explain why the vast majority of wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few and why about half of the global population lives on less than two dollars a day?” To explain such things we must go beyond the brute fact itself to the network of relations the fact entertains to other actual occasions.

However, as Whitehead suggests, the question is not one of simply unfolding the systematic relations unique to the actual occasion itself. Rather, there is a question of going beyond the actual occasion in question, so that other actual occasions might be understood as well. Thus, for instance, Freud does not restrict himself to case studies and their absolutely singular concrete organizations or constellations. Rather, Freud goes beyond the singularity of the case based on the case, to formulate a general theory of psychic functioning capable of shedding light on other cases. When confronted with a new case the process is begun anew, and the general theory is revised.

What is good for the goose is also good for the gander. Thus, if it belongs to the being of a thing or actual occasion to be a network of relations, a nexus of relations, with other things, this must hold true of a theory of actual occasions as well:

The most fundamental criterion of any metaphysics is that it be self-referential, interpreting not only the world of experience but itself, its process of formulation, and its relation to other theories as well. Any philosophical theory should be the prime exemplification of itself if it is not to be useless speculation. For Whitehead’s scheme, this entails that the theory manifest the same organic interconnections as it ascribes to the world. The various elements involved in it cannot be ‘simply located’ or self-sufficient, but must each be what the others make it to be: ‘what is indefinable in one such notion cannot be abstracted from its relevance to the other notions’ (PR, 3). In a word, any scheme must exhibit coherence as its prime requisite. It must likewise be internally consistent or logical, though a defect in this area is not prima facie justification for abandoning a scheme; it is merely an indication that more work must be done. Furthermore, inasmuch as the theory asserts the indissoluble relation of form and facts, its abstract character must be capable of exemplification in the concrete. It must have experiential ties. Insofar as it springs from concrete experience, a speculative theory will always be applicable– at least in the locus of its starting point. Its adequacy to interpret data from other areas is the empirical norm which is critical, for as a metaphysical generalization purporting to interpret all possible modalities of experience, it implicitly asserts its own necessity, which necessity must be borne out in fact. (Kraus, 45-46)

Kraus here approaches a number of issues N.Pepperell has been raising about self-referentiality, critique, and theory building. Like Hegel, Whitehead maintains that all theories of the world are true, but “…the chief error in philosophy is overstatement” (PR, 7). To take a non-controversial example, it makes little sense to suggest that Newton “is false” and Einstein “is true”. The problem with Newton is not that his theory of motion is false, but that it is overstated. Within a particular frame of reference Newton is perfectly adequate. It is when that frame is exceeded that problems emerge. As Whitehead points out,

…logical contradictions, except as temporary slips of the mind– plentiful, though temporary –are the most gratuitous of errors; and usually they are trivial. Thus, after criticism, systems do not exhibit mere illogicalities. They suffer from inadequacy and incoherence. Failure to include some obvious elements of experience in the scope of the system is met by boldly denying the facts… Incoherence is the arbitrary disconnection of first principles. In modern philosophy Descartes’ two kinds of substance, corporeal and mental, illustrate incoherence. There is, in Descartes’ philosophy, no reason why there should not be a one-substance world, only corporeal, or a one-substance world, only mental. According to Descartes, a substantial individual ‘requires nothing but itself in order to exist.’ Thus this system makes a virtue of its incoherence. But, on the other hand, the facts seem connected, while Descartes’ system does not; for example, in the treatment of the body-mind problem. The Cartesian system obviously says something that is true. But its notions are too abstract to penetrate the nature of things. (PR, 6)

For Whitehead,

…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 [fallacy of simple location]. 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. (PR, 28).

A theory is an actual occasion, and thus obeys this principle as well. Thus, theories are self-referential in the obvious sense that the concepts that make up a theory self-referentially refer to one another in their definition of one another in a way that reminds one of Saussure’s conception of language. However, theories are self-referential in the more robust and challenging sense– the sense that N.Pepperell has been developing –that not only does a theory explain the world, but the world must also explain the theory. That is, certain theories can only arise at certain times, in certain places, and from a certain point of view by virtue of how they are interrelated with the world. Consequently, a theory is obligated not only to give an explanation of the world or some phenomenon in the world, but it is also obligated to give an account of its own position of enunciation, of itself. Finally, such an understanding of theory also raises questions about methodology. Clearly one will not be able to begin with self-evident principles and deduction as terms refer to other terms in order to take on sense. As a result, though will necessarily begin with the indeterminate, the vague, the fuzzy before taking on determination and sense.