Interesting Discussion of Whitehead

Levi is confused by Steve Shaviro’s most recent post, which was prompted by Ben Woodard’s post about process philosophy. (There is a very interesting discussion happening on a number of blogs, I mostly read Levi’s and Steve’s respective blogs, so apologies for briefly ‘jumping into’ an already ongoing discusion.) Levi goes on to discuss how he is using Whitehead’s process philosophy and raises the problem of ‘God’ for those using Whitehead. ‘God’ can happily be excluded from Whitehead’s process philosophy in two important ways, but see a bit further down for what is really interesting in Levi’s post.

First, ontologically, ‘eternal objects’ are better characterised in terms of their virtuality. Religious discourse in this sense was a convenient resource for Whitehead at the time, nothing else. What is the virtual dimension of an ‘eternal object’? Deleuze’s discussion of Whitehead is good on this:

Events are fluvia. [...] A permanence has to be born in flux, and must be grasped in prehension. [...] While prehensions are always current forms (a prehension is a potential only in respect to another current prehension), eternal objects are pure Possibilities that are realized in fluvia, but also pure Virtualities that are actualized in prehensions. That is why a prehension does not grasp other prehensions without apprehending eternal objects (properly, conceptual feeling). Eternal objects produce ingression in the event. Sometimes these can be Qualities, such as color or a sound that qualifies a combination of prehensions; sometimes Figures, like the pyramid, that determine an extension; sometimes they are Things, like gold or marble, that cut through a matter. Their eternity is not opposed to creativity. Inseparable from the process of actualization or realization into which they enter, they gain permanence only in the limits of the flux that creates them, or of the prehensions that actualize them. An eternal object can thus cease becoming incarnate, just as new things — a new shade of color, or a new figure — can finally find their conditions. (The Fold, 79-80)

Deleuze is largely drawing on Whitehead’s definition of ‘ingression’ (found in Process and Reality (23) and then discussion (290-291)), plus Whitehead’s discussion about the ‘datum’ of a conceptual prehension is an eternal object (240). That is, actual occassions are a process of concresence of prehensions prehending each other, the ingression of an eternal object (actualisaion of a pure virtuality) requires conceptual prehensions. As I noted a few years ago, Harman’s reading of Whitehead does not include any of this.

The field of virtualities — involving a ‘plane of immanence’ and Bergsonian ‘duration’ — is a way to describe the entire universe of ‘eternal objects’ (chaosmos; hence Badiou’s critique about the One-All), but for Whitehead there is a specificity here (as Steve notes in his post). Whether or not Whitehead or Deleuze is correct is determined by whether or not you think the virtual is bound by the possible. Of course, this is Whitehead’s Platonic inheritance…

Second, rather than being ‘God-given’, distributing or allocating the ‘determination’ of prehensions in every situation (except for ‘creation’) is a projection, backformed from concresence by a subject that takes his/her/its perspective as a self-expressive datum. We don’t know how other subjects — human or otherwise — express such directions except through language, etc. and because we don’t know, we assume. I think this is a problem that many critics of OOO have with the approach. From Whitehead:

It is better to say that the feelings aim at their subject, than to say that they are aimed at their subject. For the latter mode of expression removes the subject from the scope of the feeling and assigns it to an external agency. Thus the feeling would be wrongly abstracted from its own final cause. This final cause is an inherent element in the feeling, consituting the unity of that feeling. An actual entity feels as it does feel in order to be the actual entity which it is. In this way an actual entity satisfies Spinoza’s notion of substance: it is causa sui. The creativity is not an external agency with its own ulterior purposes. All actual entities share with God this characteristic of self-causation. For this reason every actual entity also shares with God the characteristic of transcending all other actual entities, including God. The universe is thus a creative advance in novelty. The alternative to this doctrine is a static morphological universe. (Process and Reality, 222)

A ‘creative advance in novelty’ is how I understand Steve’s position (developed in Without Criteria), versus OOO’s ‘static morphological universe’. To put it anoher way, we know that actual entities have a final cause, but OOO assumes what this is based on a projection backformed from the concresence of the OOO-subject and the limits of potentiality actualised as ingression of ‘eternal objects’ (or I prefer ‘singularities’) in perception itself. (To use Whiteheadian terminology, the OOO superject becomes a conceptual prehension and the ‘datum’ of which is a feeling they name as ‘objects’.) An object is an object, I agree, but it is ‘this’ object for ‘this’ subject. To avoid this problem Deleuze draws on the notion of the fourth-person singular in The Logic of Sense.

Besides the God stuff (which any cursory reader of Deleuze and Whitehead would not really be that concerned about due to the relation between virtuality and eternal objects), Levi’s post is interesting for me in that he makes a distinction regarding his reading of Whitehead very clearly:

“it is my view that Whitehead undermines objects by treating “actual occasions” as the ontological foundation of being. For me the minimal units of being consist of what Whitehead would call “societies”. In my view, the structure of objects or their status as dynamic systems is irreducible, and cannot be seen as mere aggregates of actual occasions.”

Indeed, Whitehead certainly undermines objects, because the focus of his cosmological philosophy is not objects, but processes and events. (Jason Hills over at Immanent Transcendence basically makes the same point.) Levi’s take on Whitehead makes a great deal more sense to me now. (As it should be clear from the title of my blog, I am interested in events.) However, I still do not understand why ‘objects’ are interesting. Stating that Whitehead ‘undermines objects’ is to almost state the obvious.

If we are using Whitehead’s terminology, Levi needs to argue the philosophical case for discounting ‘actual occassions’ for a focus on ‘societies’; what is the point of this? And what happens to ‘actual occassions’, if the focus is on ‘societies’; do they not exist? Is there an ontological hierarchy between events and objects favouring objects in OOO? Something like, societies as objects are more ‘real’ than actual occassions as the event-based building block of everything?

In a follow up post, Ben Woodard makes a related observation:

For me, the distinction really rests on whether the object or substance is metaphysically prior to, or important, or however you want to put it, to the processes or powers.

Once someone from the OOO world explains this sufficiently, OOO as a philosophy will make a great deal more sense to (at least) me.

On the other hand, there are various problems wih Deleuze’s account of events. One in particular that I have discussed on here in terms of the problem of (extensive) scale, one way through this is to focus on singularities (the singularities belonging to the ‘wound’ are also of the singularities that belong to the ‘battle’). Jason Hills makes this observation in a comment to Ben Woodard’s above linked post:

Your question implies a substance perspective that event ontologies do not share, because all events occur in a history in which a power leads to an actual event, and actual events lead to emergent powers. There is no absolute priority of events, and any particular priority of powers over actual events is non-necessary.

Deleuze’s discussion of events in The Logic of Sense is somewhat different to the discussion in The Fold. If The Fold describes a process-oriented (or at least process-informed) philosophy of events, then the Logic of Sense is a different beast. Here I am thinking of the “24th Series of the Communication of Events” from TLoS and Jason Hills bringing up Pierce. Guattari’s intervention in Deleuze’s thinking is very useful on this point. But I don’t have the time to go into it.

9 thoughts on “Interesting Discussion of Whitehead”

  1. Excellent post.

    I saw that you visited, and I thank you for the mention.

    To be clear, I am mostly speaking from a Peirce-Deweyan position that informed Whitehead’s, but I am rarely making claims on Whitehead. I have been writing long and detailed posts because I realized that I’m coming from a different background, as a pragmatist, than most in the conversation.

    As an aid, my “actual event” is analogous to an “actual occasion” or “object.”

    Finally, to further clarify the second comment (first quotation), see my blog post about the priority of actual events or powers. I discuss what is irreducible to what, which is crucial if there is no special priority of actual events and powers. The comment is made in parts 3 and 4 of the “twilight” posts at .

    I hope that I have been helpful, and feel free to visit and leave comments.


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