Whitehead


Shaviro has a new chapter (warning PDF) up from his book on Whitehead and Deleuze. Well worth the read!

From a footnote:

My sense of Whitehead as a constructivist philosopher comes from Isabelle Stengers’ great book on Whitehead (2002). For Stengers, philosophical constructivism is non-foundationalist: it rejects the notion that truth is already there in the world, or in the mind, independent of all experience and just waiting to be discovered. Instead, constructivism looks at how truths are produced within experience, through a variety of processes and practices. This does not mean that nothing is true, or that truth is merely subjective; but rather that truth is always embodied in an actual process, and that it cannot be disentangled from this process. Human subjectivity is one such process, but not the only one. Constructivism does not place human cognition at the center of everything, because the processes that produce and embody truth are not necessarily human ones. For Stengers, as for Bruno Latour (2005), the practices and processes that produce truth involve such “actors” as animals, viruses, rocks, weather systems, and neutrinos, as well as human beings. Constructivism also does not imply relativism; in a phrase that Stengers borrows from Deleuze and Guattari, constructivism posits “not a relativity of truth, but, on the contrary, a truth of the relative” (Stengers 2006, 170, citing Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 130). In insisting upon the truth of the relative, and upon nonhuman agents in the production of this truth, constructivism is ultimately a realism, in contrast to the anthropocentrism and antirealism of so much postmodern, and indeed post-Kantian, philosophy.

I confess that I find this conception of constructivism extremely attractive. Those who followed the link to Luhmann’s brief discussion of sociological systems theory will recall that for Luhmann the elementary distinction operating systems theory is the distinction between system and environment. This, incidentally, is a distinction absent in most structural, post-structural, and a good deal of Frankfurt school theory. It could also be said that it is entirely absent in Hegel. Deleuze seems to be a unique case by virtue of his distinction between the clear and confused with respect to Ideas or multiplicities in Difference and Repetition. For Luhmann, the key point is that the environment is always more complex than the system. In a very real sense, a system functions to manage complexity. Stengers’ and Latour’s constructivism is interesting in how it works with this phenomenon. As Stengers argues in Power and Invention, constructivism is certainly an inventiveness, but it is not an artificiality. That is, we cannot say that there is one thing, culture, and another thing, nature, such that culture is always construction that distorts nature and prevents us from ever relating to it.

Construction, rather, is a slice of chaos, or the production of a zone of clarity amidst the buzzing confusion of the world. Take the chemistry laboratory. The chemist works with elements and compounds that literally do not occur in “nature” in this particular form. A good deal of the work undertaken by the chemist concerns the purification and isolation of particular compounds so that they might be investigated under specified conditions. This construction is not an artificiality, it does not produce something “unreal” or merely cultural, but reveals real features of the world. These features are revealed in interactions. Unlike the old Aristotlean conception of entities in terms of predicates that inhere in a substance, an entity is a pattern of interactions with other entities. We discover what something is by examining how it interacts with other entities (its dynamic relations) and intensities and how it interacts with us. In a very real sense it could be said that every entity is a field of entities, of relations, of dynamic interactions. The thought of a predicate is just the thought of an entity divested of its relations to its morphogenetic field (the milieu of individuation, or the context, in which an entity takes on its properties). It is an abstraction. I am inclined, for instance, to say that my coffee mug is blue. Yet my coffee cup only is blue in being perturbed in a particular way, i.e., in being stimulated by the light of my lamp and sun such that light comes to reflect in a particular way.

All of this should lead us to wrinkle our nose at the much ballyhood claims of quantum mechanics, where it is argued that quantum properties are a function of the measurements of the observer. It is not that this thesis is mistaken, not at all. Rather, the problem is that such claims assume that there is something like quantum particles in themselves. Rather, quantum phenomena, like anything else in the universe, take on their properties as a function of their interrelations with other phenomena: In this case, the observer. What is to be thought here is the primacy of relations and interactions over predicates, properties, and substances. Here a thesis that is all too often taken as epistemological (a thesis about what we can know about quantum phenomena) becomes properly ontological: A thesis about how entities are, not how we represent entities. I suspect that a good number of skeptics that claim the world can never be known implicitly continue to adhere to substance ontologies. They assume that knowledge, were it possible, would be a representation of the object as it is in-itself sans relation, and then rightfully point out that any engagement with the world involves relations that prevent us from encountering the object as it is in-itself or its self-standing substantiality. All that is required to overcome this position is to point out that the object is nothing but these relations, such that skepticism need only a slight shift in perspective to become an ontology and critique of an inadequate metaphysics.

Constructivism, as described by Stengers and Latour, can, I think, be understood as the analysis of the way in which various systems manage complexity in their interactions with other elements of the world. These processes hold as much for observers, agents, rocks, birds, stars, planetary systems, and so on as it does for observing agents. In all cases what we get is selective sensitivity to certain features of the world for the entity in question, such that the object can never be thought as an in-itself sans relation and the subject can never be thought as transcendent to world or divorced from a world.

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This review has been floating about for a while but some might not have read it. I confess that the configuration of Whitehead, Latour (to whom Melanie introduced me), Stengers and Deleuze in one article is almost too much for me to bear. If you were to add Badiou, Zizek, and Lacan I would have a breakdown borne of pure jouissance. At some point it looks like I’ll have to read this book. Reading Badiou in French is one thing, but I confess that I’m a bit intimidated by Stenger’s prose. Does anyone know if there’s a translation in the works?

UPDATE: Keith Tilford has drawn my attention to a paper by Stengers on Whitehead here. There are a number of other interesting papers at this site as well.

In Process and Reality Whitehead writes:

…we always have to consider two meanings of potentiality: (a) the ‘general’ potentiality, which is the bundle of possibilities, mutually consistent or alternative, provided by the multiplicity of eternal objects, and (b) the ‘real’ potentiality, which is conditioned by the data provided by the actual world. General potentiality is absolute, and real potentiality is relative to some actual entity, taken as a standpoint where the actual world is defined. It must be remembered that the phrase ‘actual world’ is like ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow,’ in that it alters its meaning according to standpoint. The actual world must always mean the community of all actual entities… (65)

My thought process is murky today, so I just wanted to throw out a few points in response to this passage as placeholders for future thought. It seems to me that Whitehead’s distinction between general potentiality and actual potentiality is useful in articulating what Deleuze sort of ontological work Deleuze’s category of the virtual is trying to do. Suppose we take a canonical example of potentiality from the Aristotlean tradition: the acorn. It is said that the acorn has the potential to become an oak tree. However, this would be an example of general potentiality. When we think of the acorn in this way, we are thinking of the acorn abstractly, divorced from its environment or the way in which it is related to other entities. The question remains: will the acorn become an oak tree? We have no idea. We only know that the acorn has the potential to become an oak tree. I am still unclear as to what Whitehead has in mind by “eternal objects”, so hopefully I am not distorting his conception of general potentiality too much.

There are conditions under which the acorn has the potential to become an oak tree and conditions under which the acorn does not have the potential to become an oak tree. These conditions do not belong to the internal constitution of the acorn, but rather are defined by the relations the acorn entertains to its environment: soil conditions, mineral conditions, light conditions, heat conditions, water conditions, air conditions, etc. Whitehead would say that the acorn must “prehend these other actual entities so as to concress into an oak tree.” That is, it must integrate the world about it so as to creatively actualize itself as an oak tree. This process is creative in that it will be a novel event each time it takes place. As Leibniz famously observed, no two leaves are exactly alike. The reason for this is that each leave, each oak tree, integrates the “data” of its environment in its own unique way. In this connection, Whitehead is quick to emphasize that real potentiality is closely connected to place and time (he develops an elaborate and original account of space and time that I cannot develop at this moment):

Actual entities atomize the extensive continuum [the real potentials of the world]. This continuum is merely the potentiality for division; an actual entity effects this division. The objectification of the contemporary world merely expresses mutual perspectives which any such subdivision will bring into real effectiveness. These are the primary governing data for any actual entity; they express how all actual entities are in solidarity in one world. With the becoming of any actual entity what was previously potential in the space-time continuum is now the primary real phase in something actual. For each process of concrescence a regional standpoint in the world defining a limited potentiality for objectifications, has been adopted.

The acorn does not possess the potential to become an oak tree on the moon. Nor does the acorn have the potential to become an oak tree in the Sahara desert. If these conditions are not met, then the acorn is not actualized and no processes of individuation take place. These latter conditions thus constitute real potentiality. This, incidentally, would be the problem with political theories such as we find in figures like Rawls. They only speak of general potentiality and therefore give no account of whether or not such egalitarian ideals have the potential to be realized in really existing situations. As such, they remain entirely abstract. We can ask the question of why such theories became thinkable at such and such a time and what potentialities of their own they produce, but there can be no honest question of these theories dealing with concrete situations. Such are the philosophies of the armchair. These potentials always have their somewhere and their somewhen. These potentials are, moreover, limited depending on the conditions governing the situation. As such, they function as the sufficient reason for the actualized occasion, or the reason for the actuality’s being.

Real potentiality would thus consist of the real potentials population a situation at a given point in time. It is for this reason that Whitehead is quick to emphasize that the term “actual world” is an indexical like yesterday or tomorrow. It is an indexical in the sense that its content perpetually changes. Similarly, relations among actual entities are perpetually changing, thus leading to transformations in the real potential of situations. With the actualization of virtual potentials, new potentials are produced that are, in turn, opportunities for further actualizations. All of this comes very close to what I’m trying to get at when speaking of “constellations“. A constellation refers to the real conditions encountered within a situation, and is committed to the thesis that thought must proceed from these conditions rather than from universalizing abstractions that ignore the actual world.

It seems to me that all of this resonates very closely with Deleuze’s concept of the virtual and the concerns that motivate this ontological category. Discussing the virtual in Difference and Repetition, Deleuze writes,

We opposed the virtual and the real: although it could not have been more precise before now, this terminology must be corrected. The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual. Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: ‘Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’; and symbolic without being fictional. Indeed, the virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the real object– as though the object had one part of itself in the virtual into which it plunged as though into an objective dimension… The reality of the virtual consists of the differential elements along with singular points which correspond to them. The reality of the virtual is structure. We must avoid giving the elements and relations which form a structure an actuality which they do not have, and withdrawing from them a reality which they have. We have seen that a double process of reciprocal determination and complete determination defined that reality: far from being undetermined, the virtual is completely determined. When it is claimed that works of art are immersed in a virtuality, what is being invoked is not some confused determination but the completely determined structure formed by its genetic differential elements, its ‘virtual’ or ’embryonic’ elements. (DR, 208-209)

Deleuze’s account of structure requires an extended commentary that I cannot provide at the moment, as it diverges markedly from “structuralist” conceptions of structure, allowing for dynamism, development, and evolution. What Deleuze is striving to think with the virtual is the concreteness of a situation and the differential relations that an entity entertains with its milieu in undergoing development. What, then, are these “genetic differential elements”, these “embryonic elements”, if not the real potentials that haunt a situation? The question then becomes one of how these real potentials might be awoken.

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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~…Two descriptions are required for an actual entity: (a) one which is analytical of its potentiality for ‘objectification’ in the becoming of other other actual entities, and (b) another which is analytical of the process which constitutes its own becoming.

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.’ (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23)

arabesque.jpgShaviro’s recent posts on Whitehead and Deleuze (here, here, and here), coupled with a bit of time off from teaching, have convinced me to return to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. I have had an affection for Whitehead since highschool, yet I had forgotten just how strange, beautiful, and exciting his thought is. As I read I find myself unable to sit still with the text for more than a few paragraphs, before I have to get up and manically pace back and forth, mulling over some definition or concept, translating it into the language of assemblages, Deleuze’s ontology, and some of the concepts of populations and constellations I’ve gropingly been trying to develop. For me the value of a philosophy is not so much its truth, but rather the way in which it provides you with a vocabulary or set of concepts to express a problem through which you’ve been trying to think without quite being able to articulate it. Truth is always a function of concepts that one possesses, allowing one to formulate propositions about the world that fail or succeed within the constraints of the universe of reference defined by those concepts. As Whitehead will write, “A proposition can embody partial truth because it only demands a certain type of systematic environment, which is presupposed in its meaning” (11). This is a form of meaning holism that requires one to always infer the field of propositions in which a single proposition is intelligible.

I’m unsure of whether I’ve ever actually read a piece of philosophy, whether I’ve ever been able to ever encounter a text in its own textuality, or whether instead philosophical works function, for me, as a sort of mirror where I see what I’m capable of seeing or find what I already had. Certainly there must be relations of feedback between texts and readers, such that readers produce texts and texts deterritorialize readers from their accustomed territories, yet sometimes I wonder if I only ever hear myself speak even when listening. I’m sure there are some that have frequented this domain of zeros and ones that would attest to this in evaluating me.

It seems that some of what I’m reading is highly relevant to a set of problems N.Pepperell and I have been working through with regard to abstract categories and populations. In a recent post responding to my post on populations and constellations, Nicole wrote:

Tacitly, this formulation is not completely adequate to the framework Sinthome has outlined, which would require an analysis of the constellations or assemblages that give rise to such abstract thought – and, for that matter, to the alternative form of thought that would be oriented to really existent phenomena. Such analyses, however, are difficult to provide within the confines of a blog post and, in any event, the point of this post was to outline concepts, not to put these concepts into play against any particular concrete example to which they might be applied. My comments here are therefore simply placeholders noting where Sinthome’s concepts would point over time.

What I did want to suggest, though – and I must necessarily be very gestural here – is that it may be worth considering what peculiar characteristics an assemblage might need to possess, for it to generate particular kinds of abstract thought as one aspect of its distinctive forms of self-organisation. This is, as I mentioned in another discussion over at Larval Subjects, what I take Marx to have been attempting in Capital. What is interesting in Marx’s analysis is that he doesn’t interpret the abstract forms of thought he analyses as conceptual – as something that result from generalising or abstracting away from more concrete, really existent, phenomena. Instead, he interprets them as plausible expressions of forms of abstract social practice: Marx’s work, as I understand it, suggests the possibility that abstract forms of thought might express a dimension of social practice that enacts an on-the-ground indifference to the determinate specificity of concrete entities – a dimension of social practice that appears as it is, abstract.

In such a case, perversely, only abstract theoretical categories would be appropriate, as the really existing configuration possesses practically abstract dimensions – it generates what I generally call real abstractions. Of course, in this case, those abstract categories would only themselves be adequately grasped once they were no longer understood – as they tend phenomenologically to present themselves – as conceptual abstractions or generalisations obtained by stripping away the specificities of concrete experience. Instead, certain forms of abstraction would have to be recognised as the historical, material specificity of a particular dimension of concrete practice – a recognition that would entail a form of theoretical work like what Sinthome proposes, which would seek to uncover the way in which a particular form of abstraction was assembled through determinate forms of practice.

I think N.Pepperell is being exceedingly generous and charitable in her reading of me (as is her way), and that she is essentially correct in what she here says. Truth be told, I am guilty of the sort of issue she is alluding to here with regard to the distinction between concrete populations and abstractions. Or, perhaps to put it a bit more gently, I have been schizophrenic on this issue, sometimes asserting that these abstract forms are material realities in their own right and sometimes treating them as false illusions to be banished in favor of the dynamics of the population itself. When I’m being consistent in my ontological principles, I take the former route. When I’m grumpy I take the latter route.

For me one of the most exciting moments of theoretical engagement this year came down to two sentences in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It is notable that Zinn uses the indefinite article “A” in his title, underlining the manner in which any history is a history that makes a slice in chaos, a selection that could be told in many other ways. At any rate, there Zinn writes, “Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed)… (10).” I am not sure why I found this sentence so striking. I had already developed abstractly at the ontological level all the resources I needed to have this thought in a number of previous posts. Yet, nonetheless, the thought that nations are fictions, that group unities are fictions that conceal bubbling multiplicities populated by all sorts of other far less visible networks, tensions, and dynamics hit me like a ton of bricks. I found this thought tremendously liberating.

Still, these fictions cannot be so simply dismissed and they do have a material reality of their own. For this reason, it is a mistake to even refer to them as fictions. It is in this connection that Whitehead becomes potentially valuable. here my thoughts are scattered, so I’ll try to mark some placeholders for future thought and discussion. Writing of the purpose of philosophy, Whitehead remarks that,

The explanatory purpose of philosophy is often misunderstood. Its business is to explain the emergence of the more abstract things from the more concrete things. It is a complete mistake to ask how concrete particular fact can be built up out of universals. The answer is, ‘In no way.’ The true philosophic question is, How can concrete fact exhibit entities abstract from itself and yet participated in by its own nature? (20)

The point here is not to dismiss the abstractions, but to show how they are generated out of more basic elements that he refers to as “actual occasions”. In short, for Whitehead these generalities are themselves real. Nor are they simply cognitions. They can themselves be things. These unities and abstractions generated out of actual occasions are themselves actual occasions. As Whitehead will write a couple pages later, “…in the becoming of an actual entity, the potential unity of many entities in a disjunctive diversity– actual and non-actual –[that] acquires the real unity of the one actual entity; so that the actual entity is the real concrescence of many potentials” (22). By “concresence”, Whitehead intends something like an assemblage or a drawing together of a plurality. “…[T]he ‘production of novel togetherness’ is the ultimate notion embodied in the term ‘concresence.’ These ultimate notions of ‘production of novelty’ and of ‘concrete togetherness’ [i.e., a constellation] are inexplicable either in terms of higher universals or in terms of the components participating in the concrescence” (21-22). By contrast, this reference to a “disjunctive diversity” might be taken to refer to the manner in which the elements of this concresence can enter into a variety of different assemblages which themselves “concress” in different and divergent ways. These elements are disjunctive in the sense that they are not bound in one single harmonious unity. For instance, one and the same person can be a part of a political movement and their place of employment, contributing to the two higher unities in very different ways; indeed, ways that can even come into conflict with one another.

In a way that resonates well with N.Pepperell’s remarks, a few pages earlier Whitehead observes that,

Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity. Each actual occasion contributes to the circumstances of its origin additional formative elements deepening its own peculiar individuality… An actual individual, of such higher grade, has truck with the totality of things by reason of its sheer actuality; but it has attained its individual depth of being by a selective emphasis limited to its own purposes. The task of philosophy is to recover the totality obscured by the selection.

It is extremely important to note that Whitehead metaphorically uses the language of psychology, mind, and cognition to describe everything in the universe. I personally feel that this is a language that should be eradicated and replaced by a better vernacular. That aside, individuality, consciousness, selection, and purposiveness can, for Whitehead, just as easily refer to the ways in which a rock maintains itself as a rock in the order of time, as these terms can refer to an individual person or living creature. The point here is that entity separates itself out from totality, while still being dependent on those nexes of relations, to form itself as an enduring entity in time.

My friend Melanie makes a similar point elsewhere. Melanie begins by quoting from my post on constellations and populations and then goes on to provide her own gloss:

Rather than seeing the category as a topological space capable of undergoing infinite variation while maintaining its structural identity, one variation is raised above the rest, becomes transcendent to all the rest, and becomes the measure of all the others. As a result, there emerges a gap between the category and existence.

I’ve been thinking about your quote above from the constellations post. I keep thinking abstract category is like a pure mathematical arabesque that creates an idealized figure, so that the figure becomes more recognizable than the unfolding process of variation. See the image below (at the beginning of the post): the boundaries are created out of the various bits of the unfolding process (in this case, calligraphic writing), yet in order to become recognizable as an image, the boundaries must at some point also delimit the act of unfolding. Writing or math or other forms of becoming cannot continue as a process if we want to create a recognizable image. The gap between the immediacy of the image and the legibility of the written text in an arabesque is like the gap between category and existence.

Although I object to her cognitive language of “recognition”, Melanie makes a good point here. The arabesque is like a unity or a figure that emerges out of a heterogeneous background and maintains itself in time. This would be one way of thinking about N.Pepperell’s abstractions: Namely as unities that emerge in a complex field, that “select themselves out” as it were, and maintain some stable unity in time or against plurality, forming a particularly potent tendency within the field out of which they emerge. All of this is still very vague and the dynamics would differ from system to system and would have to be approached from a variety of different perspectives depending on whether we were talking about social systems, physical systems, psychic systems, etc, but perhaps it is some small start in simultaneously thinking these buzzing networks and the unities, along with the material reality of those unities, that emerge out of them. I end with an enigmatic remark by Whitehead that underlines my thesis that rhetorics aren’t simply about something, but are something: “…[A] proposition is the unity of certain actual entities in their potentiality for forming a nexus, with its potential relatedness…” (24). Note that he does not say a proposition represents the unity of certain actual objects, but that it is the unity of certain actual objects.

Steven has posted the first draft of his chapter on Deleuze and Whitehead over at Pinocchio Theory. This article is well worth a look. A good deal of what he’s discussing converges nicely with issues I’ve been trying to develop around individuation, constellations, and populations (events and societies in Whitehead’s language). I’m itching to go back to Whitehead now and take a closer look.

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