LISA, Choice, and the Essence of Video Games

[This article contains numerous spoilers for the LISA triology]

Although they have existed for decades now video games still struggle for proper artistic recognition. One reason for this is that many video games simply fail to live up to the title of art. There are various economic reasons for this: games typically must have a mass appeal. The industry is expensive and competitive, and this creates an environment which pure entertainment value can override artistic aims. Yet they have also been misunderstood as a medium. The defining feature of video games is often perceived to be their interactivity, but that is not quite what makes them unique. Now, video games do have unparalleled interactivity when compared to other mediums, but interactive art has existed since long before video games. Even books and paintings are something we interact with in minor ways; we can view a painting from many different perspectives, and our reading of a book or painting will always be applying our own personal categories and experiences to it, actively generating the artistic experience.

The essence of the medium of the video game then is not its interactivity. The thing which video games are uniquely able to do as a medium is to represent decision-making or choices artistically. Not only can it represent them, but it can make us live through the choices we make. Even regular games are all about the choices and strategies we make and living with the consequences of those choices throughout the game. In the ideal game, it is through the choices that we make as players that the game expresses its unique themes, experiences, and styles. A video game cannot be good art if it just contains good art. A game can have beautiful environments and a fascinating plot told through cutscene movies. It can even have entertaining gameplay and still not be good art. In those cases, it just contains good art in the form of the movies, environments, et cetera. In order for it to be good art, the game must unify these elements and knit them all together so that each element of the game enhances and is deeply tied to the others.

No game does this better than the LISA trilogy. The most famous entry in this series is LISA: The Painful RPG, which tells the story of Brad Armstrong, a martial artist in a post-apocalyptic world. In this world, a mysterious event caused the death of the entire female population. One day, though, Brad discovers a female infant and brings her home, raising her and hiding her from the world with his friends, naming her Buddy. When Buddy is inevitably discovered and kidnapped by a warlord, Brad begins a violent quest to “protect” his adopted daughter.

One of the most immediate ways in which this game handles choice is through Brad’s addiction to the powerful drug Joy. Joy is an in-game item, and using Joy regularly makes the game significantly easier, for it makes you significantly stronger for a short period of time. However, Brad faces Joy withdrawal at intervals which become shorter and shorter the more Joy you take, and these make him significantly weaker. The only way to cancel withdrawal, other than waiting it out (and possibly being killed by an enemy because of this) is to take more Joy. The fate of all Joy addicts, though, is to eventually mutate into horrific and terrifying monsters, and the player faces these Joy mutants as some of the toughest enemies in the game. The game makes the vicious cycle of Brad’s addiction, and its inevitable consequence, a feature of the gameplay itself.

Brad faces a Joy mutant

Brad is also faced several times with brutally unfair choices. For example, near the beginning of the game, he is given the choices of either having one of his party members killed or losing an arm and all of the abilities which required that arm. The attachment the player has to their party members similarly grows out of the way the player comes to need them to progress in the game. The characters have personality, and it is expressed not only through non-gameplay elements like dialogue, but through their unique abilities and fighting styles as well. This makes the decision between losing a party member and losing an arm something significant to the player, not merely because of number-crunching utility. The world forces Brad to lose pieces of himself just to continue. In another situation, Brad is forced by an enemy to either give up all his items or to give him his arm. The player has a third choice here: to ask why this is being done to him. This attempt to understand and reconcile with someone, however, leads to Brad losing both his arm and his items.

Buzzo gives Brad the choice between having Buddy mutilated or having a party member killed.

Over the course of the game Brad is shown to not be the hero he thinks he is. It implies that Buddy was not kidnapped, but she rather escaped. Buddy wants to join the warlord and to help rebuild humanity. Brad is blinded, though, by his own trauma. The game makes clear from the opening cutscene that Brad had an abusive drunk for a father. Images of the titular Lisa, his sister who killed herself because of abuse, constantly haunt an increasingly more deranged and violent Brad. One of the most significant moments of the game is when it denies us a choice near the end of the game, Brad finds that his abusive father Marty has miraculously survived, and furthermore that he is sheltering Buddy. Marty seems to have become a docile and kind old man, who is nothing like the abusive and lecherous father he knew. The player is given a choice whether or not to kill Marty, but the choice does not matter. Brad is overtaken with rage and kills him regardless, even when Buddy tries to protect him, and the player can only watch helplessly.

Cruelty, unfairness, self-destruction, loss of control, and addiction are all themes that reach the player purely through the choices made during gameplay. The player is not a third party to a decision-making process that is outside of their control, like the audience of a play, but instead lives through the choices made. When the themes of the game as an artwork and the choices that the gameplay requires align, the game is a true work of art. In many games, especially RPGs, the story and themes are almost completely divorced from the choices the player makes, reducing it to a “choose your own adventure” movie with bits of gameplay in between. LISA is different. The choices made in LISA have little impact on the outcome of the story, yet that is not what matters. The choices are significant because of what they make the player feel and understand. They force the player to empathize with the conflict at hand. The last decision in LISA is Buddy’s choice. She can choose whether or not to hug Brad as he is dying, having pointlessly killed everyone in his path to “protect” someone who did not want or need protection. This choice has no impact on the ending whatsoever, yet it is perhaps the most important choice of all: to comfort a failure or to leave him.

You can try to be a good person and make a small impact on the world of LISA, but Brad will ultimately fail to be a good person no matter what the player decides. He will die pointlessly, hurting everyone around him. But the point of the choices in the game is not to tell us that we can just overcome any adversity if we are virtuous or if we make the right decisions; rather, the game wants to tell us that we can make decisions and that they do matter even if they do not change the world entirely. You can protect and care for your party members, you can sacrifice yourself for them, and you can even help a few people here and there. You can try even if everything is against you. In this sense, the choices in LISA are extremely significant for the story, in a way that only a video game can express.

When We Cannot Choose

There is a flipside to all this, and another LISA game, LISA: The First, exemplifies it. Through use of meaningless choices, or the exclusion of choice, A game can bring us directly into the situation of someone who is helpless, who has no choice. This first game puts us into the role of the titular Lisa and is the only game in which we see her view of things. Lisa is a small child living in the terrifying world of Marty’s abusive household. Much of the game is exploring the young girl’s surreal interpretation of abuse, both physical, mental, and sexual. Lisa’s deranged and damaged mind sees her father Marty everywhere. Every single character and enemy in the game excluding Lisa herself bears the face of Marty and forces Lisa to complete arbitrary, pointless, and cruel tasks, navigating through Lisa’s frequently terrifying dreamworld to find items for the various manifestations of Marty. Vomit, blood, broken beer bottles, and Marty’s face stain the floors and backgrounds of almost every environment. Every interaction with the various Martys leads to something bad for Lisa. The player has no choice but to truck on.

Eventually, the player is able to attempt what seems to be an escape, but as Lisa runs, the very background of the world is a mosaic of Marty’s face, and the player receives a game over. There is nothing you can do to stop this.

Yet, there is one other ending, albeit an even bleaker one. If the player collects all of the tapes hidden throughout the game, Lisa seems to encounter her mother in her imagination during the final escape. Her mother tries to comfort her, telling her she loves her, yet when she turns around, even she bears Marty’s face, crying that she did not mean to die. Every positive memory of Lisa, even of her seemingly kind mother, has been replaced by Marty. There is no outside for Lisa, and there is no choice she can take to make it better. There is no law except Marty’s. The player understands this because to play the game, they become Lisa. To play the game is to become helpless. The video game is the medium best suited for this. In fact, it is the only medium suited for this. Choice, then, is the true artistic essence of a video game.

Deleuze, Nietzsche, and the Dice Throw

Image Credit: Ghostvirus

One of the most difficult concepts that Deleuze discusses is his concept of the dice throw. He dedicates portions of both Difference and Repetition and Nietzsche and Philosophy to discussing this seemingly obtuse and difficult concept. Deleuze places a bizarre emphasis on it, and furthermore links it to what appears to be an extremely heterodox interpretation of the eternal return while acting like it is obvious. In order to understand it, we have to closely examine both Deleuze and Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s Triad

Firstly, we need to understand how the concepts of power, truth, and being relate in Nietzsche’s philosophy. A famous section of The Will to Power reads:

“[D]o you want a name for this world? A solution for all of its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?— This world is the will to power—and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power—and nothing besides!”

The will to power is twofold: it is the will to endure, to continue to be, and also a self-overcoming and striving towards increase. Power is exactly the ability to continue to be and to be more. Being is power. What cannot endure and self-sublimate will cease to be, whether by disease and decay, or even in a more radical denial of life in the form of suicide. What is at the moment is necessarily able to endure, and as soon as it can no longer endure, ceases to be. We can see how being and power link with truth now if we consider truth firstly in the sense of a true friend. We say that the true friend endures and reaffirms his friendship when hardship tests it, while the false friend falters. He cannot endure the test.

The ultimate test of this sense of truth is found in the eternal return:

“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ . . . Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ (The Gay Science §341)

To affirm the eternal return is to truly affirm all actions that we take. The true friend, along with the true being, is able to affirm the eternal return (and thus, the eternal return of his friendship), the test of power, being and truth. To extend the concept of truth to the propositional sense, the true proposition is the one which proves to allow us to endure, and to expand our power. The link between Spinoza and Nietzsche becomes clear when one examines Spinoza’s idea of joy, the expansion of the powers of a body. The joy or cheerfulness identified in The Gay Science (also known as The Joyful Wisdom) similarly comes from the excess of powers. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche says:

“To stay cheerful when involved in a gloomy and exceedingly responsible business is no inconsiderable art: yet what could be more necessary than cheerfulness? Nothing succeeds in which high spirits play no part. Only excess of strength is proof of strength” (§343).

Perhaps it is not wrong to further extend our chain of identifications, adding a fourth term of joy. We can continue on, and add creativity and life, and continue ad nauseum, but we have enough to understand the dice throw. It should also be noted that this does not necessarily lead to a ridiculous Hobbesian war of all against all, even if it can be argued Nietzsche desired that. It is perhaps useful to recall the distinction Deleuze draws with Spinoza between morality and ethics. A morality is something transcendent, given from beyond by God, the state, etc. An ethics on the other hand, is not transcendent, but it is not relative either. Rather, ethics is particular, dealing with the ways in which bodies can relate in ways that are healthy for them.

The Throw of the Dice

“The game two moments of the game are a dice throw: the throwing of the dice, and their return…”(Nietzsche et la Philosophie 39, translation mine).

This is how Deleuze begins his discussion of the dice throw. He is obtaining this metaphor from a passage of Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

O heaven over me, pure and high! That is what your purity is to me now, that there is no eternal spider or spider web of reason; that you are to me a dance floor for divine accidents, that you are to me a divine table for divine dice and dice players” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Book III, 48).

There are two tables which Nietzsche identifies: the sky and the earth. Deleuze identifies these with the two moments of the game, “The earth where one throws the dice, and the sky where they return” (ibid). Deleuze is careful to emphasize that these are not two different worlds, but only two different moments of the affirmation of the event, the affirmation of becoming and the being of becoming.

Furthermore, Deleuze makes another strange insistence. The player cannot be someone who throws the die over and over again to get the same combination. On the tables of life, the good gambler is the one who affirms chance (hasard) and places everything on the single throw (ibid 40). This is affirming the necessity of the chance.

“…[I]t suffices to play the affirmation of chance once, in order to produce whatever number the dice throw brings… Knowing how to affirm chance is knowing how to play” (ibid 41).

Perhaps the player who throws over and over again to obtain the result they desire is the nihilist, who has an idea about how the world should be and judges the world based on their image, rather than playing the game and affirming this world and life. The good gambler does not have hope for an expected result, but an amor fati.

“To abolish chance and to expunge from it its causality and finality, to count on the repetition of throws, and in place of affirming necessity, expecting a goal: There are all the actions of a bad player” (ibid 42).

Staking everything on the single throw of the dice opens us up to change and chance. The bad player throws the dice, discarding the change each one would bring until he gets his desired result. He subordinates the random to the same. Yet the good player does not only affirm chance and the necessity of the throw, but the necessity of the change brought by the contingent result of the throw. Pirates and revolutionaries provides an apt metaphor:

“We want to play our favorite game, perhaps tennis. But our only available player is a child too young to learn all the rules at once. We play anyway. We know that the game we will end-up playing will not exactly be tennis, but it will probably be just as fun. We leave it up to the child’s whims to make new rules. In this way, we throw him the dice. By the end, we are playing a siege game with cannons and barricades. Never had we that much fun since childhood. Tennis was its own reality. But it became siege war. The dynamics of one game changed to those of another, which itself was still evolving.

Without the child’s influence, we would be playing a game. With him along, we were really [truly] playing a game. For, we played a game with the game. We submitted the rules of one game to the lawlessness of chance, which created the rules for another game, also vulnerable to new dice throws.”

We affirm the throw (chance), and we affirm the fatal result of the throw (necessity), and will that result eternally. The true player, the powerful one, will eternally affirm both moments of the game, the throw on the earth, and the throw on the sky, no matter how many times it faces him, for the good player understands that this is the only way to endure and to be. That is the test of the true player. The player who affirms both moments endures and supersedes, both creating, and creating new ways of creating, spontaneous and innocent in their creativity. The bad player is cynical in the modern sense, not believing in the game, but seeing the game as a means to an end. Yet as Nietzsche tells us in The Will to Power there is nothing beyond the game of the world, the innocent game of becoming:

“And do you know what “the world” is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without increase or income; enclosed by “nothingness” as by a boundary; not something blurry or wasted, not something endlessly extended, but set in a definite space as a definite force, and not a space that might be “empty” here or there, but rather as force throughout, as a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms striving toward the hottest, most turbulent, most self-contradictory, and then again returning home to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord, still affirming itself in this uniformity of its courses and its years, blessing itself as that which must return eternally, as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self- creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my “beyond good and evil,” without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal; without will, unless a ring feels good will toward itself— do you want a name for this world? A solution for all of its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?— This world is the will to power—and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power—and nothing besides!”

 

Note: It is worth considering how this relates to instrumentalist worldviews. When this website was founded, it was originally the place for my delusional and half-psychotic ramblings of a vaguely transhumanist bent. To wash my hands of the affair (as undoubtedly those writings are still floating around somewhere out there), I renounce all of it. The bad player in Deleuze’s dice game is the instrumentalist as well as the nihilist, seeing the world as a means to an end. Technological and rationalist worldviews (Deleuze constantly talks about the “spider” of rationalism and compares it to the bad player) seem to desire to eliminate contingency and chance from the equation entirely. Many people who hold such worldviews, as I once did, are even determinists. The logical conclusion of such a views is a kind of nulliverse, in which there is no meaning or matter to any kind of happening, no law, no creativity and no certainly no dice rolls.

Immediate Thoughts on the Poverty of Process

The term “process” in philosophy is a meaningless, confusing phrase which should be abandoned quickly. Now, that does not mean that I renounce any of my philosophical positions, but rather, that I believe this piece of terminology does more harm than good, along with the word “becoming” in the abstract, especially when opposed to “being’ in the abstract. Every time I hear such things I cannot help but roll my eyes. It seems that any philosopher who puts in a good word for Heraclitus, from Nietzsche, to Whitehead and Deleuze, or even Heidegger, all are welcomed into the great pantheon of philosophers who “emphasized flux” and are “process-oriented.” Wikipedia’s page for Process Philosophy says:

“Philosophers who appeal to process rather than substance include Heraclitus, Karl Marx,[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, Charles Sanders Peirce, Alfred North Whitehead, William James, R. G. Collingwood, Alan Watts, Robert M. Pirsig, Charles Hartshorne, Arran Gare, Nicholas Rescher, Colin Wilson, and Gilles Deleuze.”

The vast disagreements philosophically between such figures should make such a division immediately suspect with only a moments thought. Those who follow me on Twitter might know me for my (sometimes violent) engagements with Hegelians. Perhaps Deleuze and Whitehead are worthy of being linked, but Deleuze inherits from Whitehead. It is hardly accurate I think to enthrone Whitehead as the “philosopher of process” even. It brings a host of misunderstandings about his metaphysics to newcomers, and greatly confuses people about Whitehead’s project.

Whitehead in fact, insists on the reality of permanence and eternity, despite them lacking ultimate status. Whitehead’s “flux” of motionless atoms is a far cry from Deleuze’s Spinozism, and an even further cry from Hegel’s apotheosis of consciousness. Whitehead’s project is not so much to defeat the notion of persisting things but rather to fight Aristotelian notions of substance-attribute metaphysics and the bifurcation of nature. The mistake that people make in reading “Process and Reality” is to make process itself something substantial, and in this they lose Whitehead’s truly interesting move, which is to affirm the process which the substantial entities take part in as the ultimate explanatory fact to be appealed to over and above the entities themselves. This process is Creativity, and it is the process which is reality. It fills the place which substance would, without being something substantial. The process of Creativity though is a very distinct process, and it involves stops and breaks as much as flows and flux.

Recognizing this is where we can begin to make some useful distinctions between the various “process” philosophers. Whitehead and Deleuze are perhaps best described as empiricists, in a sense which they both assigned themselves:

I have always felt that I am an empiricist . . . [My empiricism] is derived from the two characteristics by which Whitehead defined empiricism: the abstract does not explain, but must itself be explained; and the aim is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced (creativeness). (WP 7)

This term can also lead to confusion, but perhaps calling Deleuze and Whitehead “Radical Empiricists” à la William James might remedy this.

Becoming appears at the beginning of Hegel’s Science of Logic as merely one moment of a logic whose process ultimately affirms substantialist modes of thinking, albeit in a different manner than Aristotle. I do not know enough to comment on Heidegger, or on German Idealists other than Hegel, but it is clear enough that whenever these different thinkers affirm things like becoming they mean different things, and often have an entirely different goal or approach. To continue attempting to give them more unproblematic labels, we could separate all of these “process-oriented” further.

Anti-substantialists include thinkers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, Whitehead, and Deleuze. Nietzsche is difficult to place into a further category, so I will refrain (Deleuze and Heidegger might become jealous if I placed them with one or the other). They can further be split between the empiricists, Deleuze and Whitehead, and the ontologist Heidegger. Deleuze and Whitehead can be further split, the latter being an atomist and the former being a monist (in simplified terms). The German Idealists on the other hand, are dialectical and concerned with processes of consciousness and subjectivity, (as is Heidegger to some extent). There is enough scholarship on how the German Idealists divide internally that I will refrain from commenting.

So now we can do away with lumping people together, we can start to strip away terms like process and becoming and use something more accurate. Whitehead is concerned with Creativity, Deleuze with creativity specifically as morphogenesis via difference, Heidegger with Being and Time, and Hegel with the development of consciousness, or the Phenomenology of Spirit, among other things.

The reason for such hostility is that the word process becomes a kind of shibboleth or magic wand used to wave problems away, or as a kind of rhetorical device that stupefies actual thought. It also obscures what philosophers might actually be talking about. It bothers me when starry-eyed beautiful souls talk about the wonders of Whitehead’s philosophy of process and how it focuses on how the world is “dynamic and changing.” Well, Aristotle doesn’t expunge change from the world either, and neither does Plato. It is true that he rather makes creatitive process the primary, but what is truly unique about Whitehead is that he tries to provide a rigorous account of the conditions for creativity while at the same time accounting for the continuity of things, their permanence. He never throws up his hands and says “it’s all flux!” but rather attempts to explain both poles of experience, flux and permanence, as things in a complimentary contrast. To characterize Whitehead as someone who attempts to abolish one thing or another in certain dichotomies is to fundamentally misunderstand the goal of his philosophy.

In short, the term not only blurs the distinction between philosophers, but makes it unclear what each philosopher really attempts to accomplish.

 

[Please note that this post is merely airing some frustrated thoughts, rather than attempting to present a rigorous position in earnest.]

Whitehead on Space and Time

Whitehead has some of the most conceptually liberating notions for thinking about time, space, and extensionality, but unfortunately, they can be difficult to grasp. Whitehead places space and time, as well as any other possible dimension, on what he terms the extensive continuum. This is the widest possible field which we are able to imagine. The bare extensive continuum is merely a field of potential that can be filled by actual entities through extensive connection.

Any kind of extension, either through space or time, takes place on the extensive continuum. Any kind of dimensionality is a form of extension, and the forms of extension which we bear witness to are not the only ways in which actual entities can and do manifest themselves. The three spatial dimensions which we are used to could be different. It’s entirely possible for there to be a society of entities which live in a “flatland” for instance.  This notion of time as one type of extensive connectedness allows for thinking about becoming and process outside of notions of pure time.

What is meant by extensive connectedness deserves some clarification. When an entity extends through space or time, this fundamentally has to do with the way in which the entity is situating itself in a scheme of relatedness. The different modes of extension are part of what determines how an entity interacts, or connects with other entities. It can do this spatially or temporally, or any other numbers of ways which we cannot conceive.  An entity that is highly extended is strongly related to many entities compared to one which is less extended. With this in mind, we can begin to think of time as just one form of extensive connection. The process of becoming is atemporal for Whitehead, time merely illustrates certain effects of becoming. What is more fundamental in talking about past, present, and future for Whitehead is determining the causal order of things. What we see as time merely illustrates some aspects of the causal relationships in a given entity’s becoming.

The extensive continuum also represents the potential divisibility of things. Everything on the continuum can be divided or split into parts by examination, but is found as a unified solidarity, hence continuum.

Now, what would this actually look like? The actual world of a given actual entity for Whitehead is causally in the past for that entity. That is, the entity is causally dependent on the entities in it. The things which this concresence is causally independent of are its contemporary entities. Though Whitehead is not clear on this, the way in which an entity extends temporally would determine which entities in its causal future are dependent on it and which are independent, while matters of space would deal with the “location” and importance of its connections to entities in this timeframe.

Thinking of becoming outside of time allows for a great expansion of the imagination. It lets us to reconcile notions of eternity and permanence inside of an ever-novel and changing universe, and also makes the discoveries of empirical sciencelike relativity, quantum entanglement, et ceteramore easily reconcileable with our categories of thought, though I am hesitant to make any sweeping claims on this matter without doing further research.

Understanding the Nonhuman: The Relevance of Ontology

In my philosophical and political circles, general schemes of reality have been accused of being unimportant. That is, in attempting to expand towards what lies beyond human experience, it ensures that whatever it adds to our worldviews will be irrelevant to any of our practical endeavors. I hope to dispel such notions.

As an analogy, let us imagine a group of physicists are measuring the behavior of an atom. These physicists develop a model to understand how this type of atom will move about when placed in certain conditions. In normal, earth-like conditions, they develop a model that explains its behavior in every case. However, they discover that this theory is limited: it cannot explain how the object behaves in extreme conditions. For this example, the atom behaves strangely at high speeds.

If these scientists were to announce, “No, the current model is completely fine, there is no need to develop a general one,” we would certainly be surprised and scold them for such behavior. Then, someone presents to them a general theory, and they respond, “This is just irrelevant! It does not present anything that matters for human engineering or technology! Do you not care about how things are for us?” People who acted like this would be treated as bad scientists in an ideal world, for if people acted this way, we would certainly never have made the discoveries that we have and the advances that we previously thought impossible. We would certainly consider it unjust if when the first person looked up at the stars and wondered aloud if they could be reached he was scolded by his peers and told to keep his mind on more practical things. Thanks to the work of the curious, we have discovered a great hope for our species in space travel.

Yet in philosophy and the more philosophical sciences, a similar attitude is not only pervasive, but dominant. Quoting Matthew T. Segal Quoting Graham Harman:

“The taste for cosmological vastness,” writes Harman in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “reaches us from Buddhist scripture and the roar of the sea and the probes launched toward Saturn, but the philosophy of human access persuades us to forget these astonishing spaces, or to leave them to other university departments” (255).

While Kant or Hegel will go to great lengths to make such spaces unreachable or nonexistent respectively, what we are dealing with here is a purely pragmatic objection. The non-human exists, but it does not matter. Objects may interact with each other and have a life of their own so to speak, but it is irrelevant to us, so there is no need to talk about it. This line of thought is as absurd as saying that because I have never opened and never needed to open a certain cabinet in my house that I never check what is inside. Checking what is inside will not hinder my ability to check the other cabinets, just as being able to talk about the nonhuman will not hinder my ability to talk about the human. It can only help it.

Refactoring your ontology is a little more complicated than opening a cabinet, but that does not mean it is terribly difficult. It never hurts for a theory to be able to talk about more things, as being able to talk about new things does not exclude what we were able to talk about before. It is especially critical when navigating human society and politics that we have as general a scheme as possible. Human society is situated in a worlda world which is for the most part nonhuman. We must speak about the nonhuman when discussing human society, and when we do so, we have to do so in a manner that is coherent. There is no avoiding ontology in this regard; there is simply doing ontology and pretending you have not. Winging our ontology will inevitably result in something reductionistic and limited.

One of the most important fields where the understanding of the nonhuman is important is ecology. For a long time, environmental concerns were ignored in politics and philosophy, yet our ignorance of how such things interact has led to one of the greatest crises to ever face humanity. It is important to understand the nonhuman here because we do not know the line where “affecting humans” ends and where “irrelevant” begins. I am not suggesting that the solution to the climate crisis is that we all become object-oriented philosophers; I am saying that our sciences and theories must have methodologies and theories which are not hopelessly skewed towards the human. We have nothing to lose from doing so except at most some hours of our time, and we may gain ways of thinking about our world which are more flexible, coherent, and expansive. It is common sense that such a thing is beneficial. Only when we do so can we put our more special endeavors into context and understand how they interact.

Philosophers, scientists, and political thinkers have long criticized the attitude that “if it does not affect me or my friends, then it does not matter.” Why then do they not purge themselves of the last vestige of this mode of thought? Philosophy has been irrelevant for so long because of this attitude writes Bogost:

“The problem is not the humanities as a discipline (who can blame a discipline?), the problem is its members. We are insufferable. We do not want change. We do not want centrality. We do not want to speak to nor interact with the world. We mistake the tiny pastures of private ideals with the megalopolis of real lives. We spin from our mouths retrograde dreams of the second coming of the nineteenth century whilst simultaneously dismissing out of our sphincters the far more earnest ambitions of the public at large—religion, economy, family, craft, science.”

The sooner we rid ourselves of such an attitude, the better. No more skewed theories; no more faulty instruments.

Nightmare Noumena

Vince Garton made an excellent post on the subject of Hegel. Garton paints Hegel as someone attempting to escape the “chaos of phenomena” which seemed to have quite literally haunted his nightmares:

“To dispel the gloom, Hegel constructs a golem of cold rationality. A famous footnote to the Philosophy of Right proclaims that the Idea, which is the State, ‘marches through history.’ Its gait is the dialectic; it takes strides of negation and negation of negation, one foot in the particular, the other in the universal. We are led to believe that it is organic, smoothly balanced.

This, as Adorno pointed out in his essay on the ‘Aspects of Hegel’s Philosophy,’ is a lie. The golem is a monster, lumbering lopsidedly. Its particularity is shriveled, its universality swollen to grotesque proportions. What is deviant, what is heterodox, what is unreasonable: all of these are crushed beneath its limp. And the darkness is infecting it. The State proclaims, ‘there is no other god besides me,’ even as its face is defiled with blood and fire.”

Vince likens the realm which Hegel attempts to banish with the golem of the state to the Gnostic Yaldabaoth, a horrific realm created by the tainting of the transcendent light. However, this is not what is particularly interesting about Garton’s post. The interesting insight he makes is this:

“If Yaldabaoth is the figure of gloom, the infection of the pure light of the One, this says nothing of the purity of the darkness itself. Indeed, in the Gnostic universe, it is only light that needs to worry about a descent into the gloom. The cold darkness of nihil, by contrast, is deep and unending. Yaldabaoth’s realm is merely the portal: there are stranger things that lurk in the abysses, noumena, as Kant termed them, but noumena that move beneath their cloak of imperception. The defeat of Yaldabaoth comes not, as Hegel thought then, from the luminary State that dissolves the ‘chaos of phenomena,’ the triumphant Idea. Yaldabaoth dies in the fangs of the noumena themselves.

The fear of the chaos of phenomena, dissolves for those who are content to live among the noumena. Yet Vince does not go into a detailed discussion of how this fear arises in the first place. Lets trip out any characterization of noumena-positing philosophy as dark or scary. The fear of the chaos of phenomenon does not usually arise from any fear of Lovecraftian horrors, though the anthropocentrism Lovecraft upends is a definite root of the problem. The golem emerges out of several self-created philosophical problems, but at their heart is the bifurcation of nature. The bifurcation of nature is what gives rise to the dark triad of unreformed subjectivism, correlationism, and finally Absolute Idealism. It is only in a world in which man and nature are so torn from each other that such ideas become necessary to have coherent pictures of the world. Arguing against the bifurcation is beyond the scope of this article, I wish merely to trace some of the causes and to discuss what is possible without it.

The bifurcation of nature is in short the splitting of nature into primary and secondary qualities, though it is slightly more complex. The divesting of man from nature begins with the simple attributing of certain qualities such as colors to the human mind alone, but as Shaviro notes it is merely the first step on a slippery slope:

“It is only when our experience has been sundered in two that we could ever think of the need for a correlational structure in order to put it back together again. Modern Western thought, from Descartes through Locke and on to Hume, partitioned the world between primary and secondary qualities, or between objectively extended objects, on the one hand, and merely subjective “psychic additions” (CN 29), on the other. This culminated in the crisis of Humean skepticism, which Kant resolved by arguing that the unknown realities “out there” must be organized in accordance with the conditions imposed by our minds. We have viewed the world through a correlationist lens ever since.”

After Kant, it is only a short step to Hegel and Absolute Idealism. Modern philosophy creates its own monster, and it appears to those trapped within its circle that the only way out is to abolish the nightmare phenomena is to install a pretender god in place of the noumena. The problem is entirely self created; it is only a problem because of commitments to earlier philosophical traditions and ideas. The bifurcation is an idea so deeply rooted in many minds that they do not see how another way is possible, for no recourse to noumena is possible with it. The idea of secondary qualities seems so intuitive to the modern mind that suggesting that colors exist whether there is someone to see them or not seems quite ridiculous. But once the bifurcation collapses and man plunges back into nature the golem’s legs collapse with them.

The Anselmo Effect

The effect that Shaviro notes (citing Whitehead) is what I call the Anselmo Effect. This takes its name from the titular character of The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious. Anselmo, fearing that his wife might be unfaithful, asks his friend Lothario to attempt to seduce her. Lothario at first refuses, but eventually agrees. While at first his wife’s faith is proven, no evidence is enough for Anselmo. Eventually, Lothario and his wife actually do fall in love, and Anselmo loses not only his love, but also his life, not because of his wife being unfaithful, but due only to his reckless curiousness.

Philosophy from Descartes onwards plays the role of Anselmo. Descartes, Locke, and Hume all attempt investigations to find certain knowledge, as Anselmo, but are armed with faulty principles that they unconsciously inherited from the Greeks, just as Anselmo has a faulty notion of his Wife’s fidelity. These include the notion of the subject-predicate mode of expression being an accurate reflection of a reality (leading to the disastrous notion of substance which Hume rightfully criticized) and the sensationalist doctrine of perception, in which a subject passively receives bare sensa which are devoid of any relations, either to other objects or to the receiver.

This is essentially an overintellectual mode of inquiry. I do not mean to paint a picture of ivory-tower intellectual philosophers, these men were all great and intelligent thinkers. They merely inherited a mode of thought that had developed over time and were either unaware or thought it was simply obvious. This is a trap that anyone could fall into:

“Hume and Locke, with the overintellectualist bias prevalent among philosophers, assume that emotional feelings are necessarily derivative from sensations. This is conspicuously not the case; the correlation between such feelings and sensations is on the whole a secondary effect. Emotions conspicuously brush aside sensations and fasten upon the ‘particular’ objects to which— in Locke’s phrase— certain ‘ideas’ are ‘determined. The confinement of our prehension of other actual entities to the mediation of private sensations is pure myth. The converse doctrine is nearer the truth: the more primitive mode of objectification is via emotional tone, and only in exceptional organisms does objectification, via sensation, supervene with any effectiveness. In their doctrine on this point, Locke and Hume were probably only repeating the mediaeval tradition, and they have passed on the tradition to their successors. None the less, the doctrine is founded upon no necessity of thought, and lacks empirical confirmation. If we consider the matter physiologically, the emotional tone depends mainly on the condition of the viscera which are peculiarly ineffective in generating sensations (Process and Reality 141).”

The problem with this mode is that it lends itself to only examining clear and distinct perception. The philosophers, seeking clear and distinct principles of knowledge, focused themselves on what is clear and distinct in experience but this sadly obscured the most important factors of experience where causality. Focusing on what Whitehead termed Presentational Immediacy leads straight to the Humean crisis, for it limits us to a solipsism of the present that lacks neccessary connection. This can only be escaped by the path of transcendental philosophy. The idea of non-sensuous perception, or what Whitehead terms causal efficacy, is discussed at length elsewhere by Shaviro. Whitehead claims that by examining the more primordial modes of experience (such as immediate sensory memory), which are vague and indistinct, we can escape the Humean crisis of skepticism without recourse to Kant. In order to do this, it is necessary to abandon our desire for clear and distinct things to be the only basis for inquiry. Otherwise, like Anselmo, our search for clarity will obscure the plain facts.

The modes of thought that lead to the Humean crisis then are then threefold. First, the Bifurcation of Nature into primary and secondary qualities, that is qualities inherent in objects, and mere psychic additions. Secondly, the distrust, misunderstanding, or avoidance of non-sensuous perception. Finally, the abandonment of Locke’s somewhat inconsistent doctrine of things determined to ideas. These things may not seem immediately related, but it is only when we think in terms of primary and secondary qualities that non-sensuous perception are easily forgotten, and all of them ultimately stem from the subject-predicate mode of expression. This mode of expression forces us to think in terms of a substrate with essential being which only undergoes accidental changes. The subject is thus conceived of as a passive receiver, and sense-impressions as his qualities. The bifurcation of nature is already implicit in such a division. Locke’s pseudo-Platonism offered a possible path out, but as it was deemed inconsistent with the rest of his doctrine, it was subsequently abandoned by Hume. The history of post-Cartesian philosophy is the history of suppressed premises. That is, premises which could have offered radical solutions to the philosophical problems of the time, but out of either prejudice or thoughtlessness, were discarded and deemed unworkable. Had they taken up these premises, they would have discovered much earlier the Empiricist thought of thinkers such as Whitehead and Deleuze.

Indeed, without questioning the grounds of the crisis, one is, like Anselmo, forced to continue down the path of doubt. Following Kant, we ask constantly how we can know. It seems a noble question, but inevitably Kant’s epistemological solipsism leaves us in a position where we face several dilemmas from which there seems no escape. Empiricism seems like it can no longer do if we want to escape. It is unreliable and has to be grounded in thought somehow, rather than thought grounded in experience. Thought and experience are split. In fact, the experiential quality of thought is often entirely forgotten. A methodological dualism emerges in which thought becomes the arbiter of everything. Humans are identified with thought, and sensory experience has been proven so faulty that nothing can be done with it to obtain metaphysical truths. To even be able to theorize at all from here the Phenomenology of Spirit becomes necessary. Reason has to perform dialectical leaps in order for us to get out of our heads and conquer the chaos of phenomena, a chaos which thought itself has created. A recourse to empiricism now seems like it can only lead to a postmodern scientism which cares nothing for truth and reduces all thought to its utility, unless thought can ground itself in Wissenschaft. Unless we can rescue an anthropo/logocentric subject it seems like the world will be divested of all value and truth will pass into myth. Hegelians are responding to what appears as a legitimate problem.

To get right answers though, we have to be asking the right questions. Vince typically uses this slogan in regards to politics, but it applies to philosophy as well: “Let Go.”

As has been said earlier, providing a detailed critique of these modes of thought is too large a topic for this article, entire books have been written about the subject. Hopefully, the reasons why some find a pathological aversion to post-critical thought are now more illuminated. For those interested, I find that the work of Alfred North Whitehead provides a possible escape route from these modes of thought as is evident from my choice of quotations. Whitehead’s strategy is to unsuppress the forgotten premises, and to make every philosopher from Locke to Kant sing a remarkably different tune. Footnotes2Plato explains this route beautifully:

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism possesses an immunity to post-Kantian skepticism, since it arises out of a radically embodied characterization of sensory experience. Empiricism, for Whitehead, does not mean paying attention only to raw sense data devoid of necessary connections, as in Hume. Like Kant, Whitehead has a more textured conception of fact, or what is given to us experientially prior to cognitive operations of any sort. Time and space, as Shaviro points out, are not categories of the understanding added to experience after the fact, but the inner and outer modes of intuition given as our immediately felt connection with the body and the world. Of course, our intuitions of space and time are not entirely immediate, since we feel these with the body and so experience them through the mediation of our perceptual organs. But these organs are experienced by us immediately, and the flow of sensation through the nerves of our own body is clear evidence of causation. The raw sensa, or bare universals, that Hume mistakenly assumed were the atoms of perceptual experience are actually a later cognitive abstraction.

What is required to banish the phenomena of our nightmares is not to explain them away with the dialectical light of reason, but merely to rub our eyes and politely interrogate them. Perhaps then we will discover that they are not so terrifying at all. In fact, they may be just like us.

Freedom and Creativity in Whitehead

In Lecture 4 of Modes of Thought, Whitehead claims “the essence of life is to be found in the frustrations of established order. The Universe refuses the deadening influence of complete conformity.” The subtitle of this blog is based on a possibly apocryphal quote by Whitehead. “Life is an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the universe.” If the essence of life for Whitehead is the frustration of the established order, then the essence of life lies in Creativity, the refusal of complete conformity. Indeed, creativity is given the status of “category of the ultimate” by Whitehead in his categoreal scheme. All of the creatures of Whitehead’s philosophy, from God to space dust, are creatures of Creativity. Now, that is not to say that a cloud of space dust is really a creative and inventive artist. It is merely pointing out the fact that things do not remain the same. It is the constant advance of novelty, however trivial it may be.

One might want to dub this “becoming,” but Whitehead refrains from doing so, as the word becoming is reserved for a particular characteristic of actual entities, and creativity is not an actual entity. Furthermore, becoming in Whitehead’s philosophy is something intermittent. Becoming is not temporal for Whitehead, but rather temporality is something that becomes. There is not a continuity of becoming, but a becoming of continuity. However, there is a continuity of creativity, as continuity itself emerges for creativity, yet creativity is not something that is substantive. Everything in the Whiteheadian universe is taking part in creativity, but creativity is something actual only in virtue of entities that are able to condition and characterize it, i.e. actual entities.

Creativity is found in the fact that the world is never the same twice, and the temporal worldand, for Whitehead, the world in generalis constantly producing something new. Even space dust does not merely conform to the past. If there was no creativityno novelty being introduced by entitiesthere would be no change. Even space dust is floating about, sometimes clumping together, sometimes breaking apart, and always undergoing some small change. Life itself is something that is one of the greatest agents of creativity, for it allows for complex types of entities to emerge. Bacteria react to their environment and maintain themselves. Early lifeforms are some of the first things to exhibit complex selective behavior, transforming, reducing, and reacting to the flow of information that they are fine-tuned to receive.

Yet bacteria are not great poets. Their creativity is still trivial, and a bacterium is almost entirely determined by its environment. It is highly limited in its individual capacity to change itself and determine, and the means by which it transforms its experience are primitive. Yet compared to space dust, the bacterium is much more independent of its environment because of the very fact that it resists conformity. It is an active order of events, and the species that it belongs to is as a whole even more dynamic, able to adapt over time in ways of which previous types of entities were simply incapable. It is clear that creativity for Whitehead is not something that floats in from nowhere, but something that develops out of a social environment. Every entity has a conformative period in which the past fills it, and each entity then issues forth from the past a novel satisfaction, something new and different. In a sense, an entity is an interpreter of the past. Every act of interpretation is novel creation and vice versa. Again, if an entity did not introduce anything new into the equation, there would not be a new entity! Rather, there would simply be more of the same.

Humans are, as far as we know, the most advanced organisms in regard to novelty-production due to our complex mental abilities. We are able to imagine, theorize, and plan for the future. Yet like bacteria, we do not create ex nihilo. We exist in a society which conditions us to a large degree. Great poets often do not choose the language in which they write. When John Keats sat down to write Ode on a Grecian Urn, the title alone reveals that he was working off of a past culture and society that had placed ideas into his head. There is an urn which inspires him, one that was created by an artist who, like Keats, was conditioned and shaped to a large extent by his culture. Yet the poem is not merely the sum of Keats’ education, with a mere description of the urn; it is something that has never existed before. However small it may be, Keats does indulge in an act of creation that brings something new into the world through his imagination. There would be no Keats without English culture, no Ode without the ancient poetic traditions, and without Greece, no Grecian Urn, yet it is only through Keats creative capacity that they are able to be tied together and something new emerge. This is, in a large part, interpretation, but it is a creative act nonetheless. Keats is able to be creative precisely because there is a basis of past creativity from which he pushes off and differs himself. Think of the artist who made the Grecian urn in question: they themselves engaged in a similar act of creation which provides a basis for future novelty. Furthermore, the English culture itself emerged through a process of evolution and creation, millions of people and elements contributing to the creation of something that did not exist before, despite the influence and inheritance of the past. Creativity is freedom, and just like there is no pure creativity, there is no absolute freedom, but there are shades and degrees.

What really leads to something coming from nothing, though, is the position that all of this merely evolves entirely out of past states. The claim that everything is merely deterministically conforming to past events is all that happens is not only denying that entities can be creative, but is tantamount to rejecting that there is any change or creation at all. If one admits that there is true novelty, we must explain how it is able to emerge without merely waving our hands to an incoherent system in which things simply pop in from non-things and without submitting to the equally incoherent idea of a perfect being which, for reasons unknown, merely unfolds itself out. We must explain our experience, but we cannot explain it away. That is the chief disease of philosophy, to paraphrase Whitehead, and it must be avoided at all costs. The philosophy of organism is merely an explanation of the most basic fact of novelty. Creativity is not something incoherent that floats in from nowhere, unique to genius individuals, but the most basic and ultimate notion of the universe.

This is not to say that creativity is always something valuable. Keats’ poems, for example, are not valuable to those who cannot read them; they are irrelevant. Aliens on some other planet are, for now, irrelevant to humans. When Whitehead speaks of creativity, he is not making a value judgment. Creativity is not good in and of itself, but rather a condition for the possibility of value. Value emerges based on the ways in which other entities experience and interact with each other, rather than as some absolute factor of creativity. Things of little consequence or value to anything happen more often than not. A single photon flying through empty space is, for all intents and purposes, valueless. Creativity is not valuable per se, but value is something that is created.

It must be remembered that the environment which makes creativity possible is only one side of the story. The past presses down upon the present, but never completely. Even when humans are long gone, this creative advance shall not cease.

“O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
–John Keats

 

Note: Some have asked me why Whitehead uses the term creativity rather than something more traditional like “becoming.” The most concise way of putting this reason is that becoming for Whitehead is ontic, it is something that happens to individual things, while creativity is not a thing or entity, but a description of the general process of reality.

Why/How to Read A.N Whitehead

Whitehead is an intimidating figure in the history of philosophy. He is obscure, and his influence, where there is any, appears trivial and esoteric. Few people are aware that Whitehead was a philosopher. His most well known work with Russell, the Principia Mathematica, firmly cemented his reputation as mathematician. Furthermore, the failure of that work lead many to dismiss Whitehead entirely, even though Whitehead’s mathematical career has little to do with his philosophy. Dubbed “The Philosophy of Organism,” Whitehead attempted to do away with the notion of substance in philosophy, formulating a system of organic philosophy which would finally give process its proper place in philosophy, rather than offer mere lip-service to Heraclitus. Whitehead’s problem is somewhat deeper than that though. He really sets to respond to a problem he coins “The Bifurcation of Nature,” the demolition of substance being merely one thing necessary for the abolition of the Bifurcation.

This is the splitting of the world into primary and secondary qualities. That is to say, qualities which are inherently in objects, such as figure or molecular structure, and features which are inherently subjective, like color. The latter, in much of metaphysics, does not exist without someone to view them. Color literally drains out of the world, and our own experience becomes less real than what we have posited from our experience. Humans are irrevocably cut off from the world. The bifurcation leads to a host of other philosophical problems, like the mind-body problem, idealism, scientism, among others. Whitehead is a radical empiricist, and he seeks to explain every factor in experience, leaving nothing untouched.

“Philosophy destroys its usefulness when it indulges in brilliant feats of explaining away. It is then trespassing with the wrong equipment upon the field of particular sciences. Its ultimate appeal is to the general consciousness of what in practice we experience. Whatever thread of presupposition characterizes social expression throughout the various epochs of rational society must find its place in philosophic theory. Speculative boldness must be balanced by complete humility before logic, and before fact.It is a disease of philosophy when it is neither bold nor humble, but merely a reflection of the temperamental presuppositions of exceptional personalities” (Process and Reality 17).

Whitehead refuses to explain away anything. Philosophy must explain without explaining away, and the bifurcation is at the root of all explaining away. Whitehead, then, is at his core an anti-positivist, yet a unique one. Whitehead does not seek to do away with science; in fact, his philosophy is rather pro-science. His problem is with scientism, or what he called “scientific materialism.” An example of this is when someone concludes that conscious experience does not exist because it is not accounted for by scientific models. These models are in turn built off of conscious experience. Scientific materialism commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness in that, upon building abstractions based on concrete experience, it asserts the abstractions to be concrete and thus undermines itself. This fallacy can only occur in a bifurcated world, in which subjective experience is entirely torn from the objective and vice versa. Whitehead does not make polemics against science, but rather politely, and with a bit of English humor, explains the problem and provides a possible solution. The solution however, as Isabelle Stengers frequently notes, must not butcher the problem in the process!

How do we prevent the splitting of the world into an inescapable dualism? That is the question Whitehead seeks to answer, and the answer requires twisting philosophy in delightful waysmaking metaphysics speak of what it typically fails toof change, experience, the body the ultimate relativity of all viewpoints, and many more. Whitehead leaves no stone unturned in his quest to purge philosophy of the twin maladies of substance and dualism. In this journey, he takes everyone from Descartes to Kant and turns them right-side up, finding arguments for experiential causality in Hume and arguments against dualism in Descartes. The adventure of Whiteheadian metaphysics ends with a system which, while based entirely on radical empiricism, does not fall into materialism on one hand or transcendental idealism and subjectivism on the other. He avoids anthropocentrism and builds a flat ontology where everything from space dust to living beings take an active part in creation.

Putting all this aside, the personal appeal of Whitehead for me is that he is the first philosopher who caused a complete change in my worldview. I had been an idealist for quite some time and had taken a passing interest in Whitehead. It was around two p.m. in the morning, and I was struggling desperately to get through one of his discussions of Hume and Kant in Process and Reality when it all snapped together. I nearly shouted “By God, he’s right; causality is a part of experience!” Whitehead’s ingenious arguments about causality, perception, and experience in general completely shifted the way I viewed the world, and I was not even expecting it to happen. Whitehead did not win me over through tricks, rhetoric, and polemics, but by simple and polite discussion. There is no obscurity of method or a hidden agenda; indeed there is hardly ever a hint of antagonism or of dramaturgy in Whitehead’s writing. He is plain and to the point, bumbling along in a somewhat pedantic and academic tone and saying the most profound things left and right without blinking. Moreover, Whitehead never self-aggrandizes his work – quite the opposite. Whitehead is humble from the beginning, constantly reinforcing the incompleteness of his, and indeed, any philosophical scheme for sounding the true depths of reality. He never proclaims an end of philosophy, or of anything, for doing so would be antithetical to the nature of his philosophy, which deals with understanding the ceaseless production of novelty. His tone is not that of a moralizer or a prophet, but simply that of an enthusiastic and sincere teacher wishing to share his knowledge. Whitehead is a good philosopher because he simply does philosophy rather than seeking something beyond it; he is a true lover of wisdom.

Difficulties in Reading

Vocabulary

The largest barrier to Whitehead is probably the vocabulary. Very few terms used by Whitehead retain their original meaning, and if they do, they retain the original meaning only as a special case of a wider phenomenon. The term “feeling” is a good example of this happening. If one is not careful, a page filled with seemingly familiar words can become nigh-incomprehensible. The fastest way to grasp vocabulary is to act as if each technical term you encounter in Whitehead is something entirely new. Forget any previous idea you had of it, and try and figure out what Whitehead means by it. It is also essential to go through with a glossary of Whitehead terms such as those in this excellent book. Many of the words in Process and Reality do not make sense until you see how they fit into the larger scheme, but a glossary can help you start to piece together the main ideas. By far the most important idea to understand in Whitehead is the concept of “prehension.” Once you understand how prehensions work, you have a solid base upon which to build your knowledge of Whitehead. Understanding what eternal objects and the “primordial nature of God” is is also key. Keep in mind that the word “God” in Whitehead is a technical term too, not some transcendent entity brought in to bring together what cannot be brought together.

Style

Whitehead, rather than suffering from a vagueness of terminology or description, suffers from an overabundance of detail. This is a blessing and a curse. Whitehead is nothing if not explicit, but the nuance of his investigations can be overwhelming. Compounded with the above vocabulary, it can be easy to get brain-fried if one is not careful. This can also be frustrating, as Whitehead can seem to pontificate about things whose importance is not quite clear. Take things slowly: Whitehead thought long and hard about each discussion in his writings; he would not have put these thoughts in his books if he did not think they were important. When Whitehead begins listing the characteristics of something, be sure to pay close attention and make sure you really understand what is being said. If you are unable to piece things together, do not stress over it, but move on and come back to it latereventually it will make sense.

Structure

This leads into the final difficulty: the structure. This is both a blessing and a curse. Process and Reality is a labyrinthine book, and Whitehead’s philosophy eludes a linear explanation. Unlike philosophers such as Hegel, where there is a definite step-by-step progression, Whitehead’s philosophy is much more like a web. This is good in that Whitehead can circle around and explain things multiple times, shedding new light on them each time. The downside is that, well, he circles around and explains things multiple times, having to shed new light on them each time. It is very difficult to get a foothold and penetrate, for there is not really a good place to start with Process and Reality.

In order to get around this, I suggest that you don’t start with Process and Reality. Instead, by getting a preliminary idea of the important ideas in Whitehead’s philosophy in his less systematic texts, approaching his magnum opus will be much easier. I suggest this order.

  • The excellent chapter of Adventures of Ideas entitled “Objects and Subjects.” This may be one of the best introductions to the key ideas of Whitehead despite it being in the middle of a book. It can be read with a glossary and without the context of the rest of the book. I recommend finding a PDF of the book rather than buying as the chapter is only 15 pages.
  • After this, reading chapter 1 of Process and Reality may be a good idea, as he lays out many of the goals of his philosophy. It is highly accessible and requires no advanced knowledge to read.
  • The book Modes of Thought can be found online here.  This is an excellent survey of Whitehead’s ideas, and with the knowledge provided by the above chapter, it should hopefully seem more than just a collection of platitudes. It is where I began, and while it was interesting, the subtlety of the concepts introduced in here required me to revisit it after reading Process and Reality. The concept of importance is actually foundational to his philosophy, though I did not notice it until rereading. This was his last work, and one of his best. Furthermore, it is quite short!
  • If it interests you, Science and the Modern World is an introduction to his earlier thought with some more direction as to the applicability of his philosophy. It should be noted, however, that his philosophy is significantly altered from this point on.
  • Afterwards, I recommend trying to read Process and Reality armed with your glossary. If you find yourself getting bogged down and confused, there are several secondary texts that can help you. I personally used A Key to Process and Reality, though I would actually recommend Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead, for it provides a close reading of Whitehead’s entire corpus.
  • This can be read before or after the previous entry, but whenever you choose, return to Adventures of Ideas. This is Whitehead’s mature work, written after Process and Reality and extends many of the discussions of that book, as well as developing a philosophy of history.

Whitehead’s other books are not nearly as gargantuan and intimidating as Process and Reality. With this list, you can be eased in to his vocabulary and style. In his less systematic works, he is a much better writer, and his personality and humor shines through the rigorous language. The most difficult parts of Whitehead can hopefully be avoided or softened by this strategy. Once you are able to speak Whiteheadese, and it all starts to snap into focus, it will be a pleasure to read and think with Whitehead.

 

The Philosophy of Organism Part 5: Societies and Nexūs

The world of societies and nexūs (plural of nexus) is the world that we typically experience and live in. The world of rocks, trees, and humans. Aggregated actual entities form complex beings that endure over time. From here on in, things become much more intuitive.

This will probably be the last post in this series. This does not mean I will cease to write about Whitehead, quite the opposite. After this article, the series should be complete enough that anyone reading future posts I make about Whitehead could read these and have a reasonable understanding of how things function. Future articles about Whitehead’s theories of perception, consciousness, causality, etc. will not be numbered in a series, but their own independent articles.

The Nexus

A nexus is the most basic kind of aggregate in the philosophy of organism. The way that a nexus emerges is through a process called “transmutation.” This has nothing to do with alchemy (damn) but merely with disparate datum coming together to produce one complex novel feeling. The many being felt as one. The many disparate entities are prehended not as an aggregate, but as a unity. The doctrine of transmuted feelings allows Whitehead to overcome a problem inherent to monadic metaphysics. If everything is ultimately composed of singular monads, then how do larger objects emerge? Why do we see the world in a macrocosmic manner instead of simply monads? Where Leibniz brought in an ad-hoc and inexplicable doctrine of “confused perception” Whitehead brings in his rigorous category of transmutation:

The Category of Transmutation. When (in accordance with category (iv), or with category (iv) and (v) one and the same conceptual feeling is derived impartially by a prehending subject from its analogous simple physical feelings of various actual entities in its actual world, then, in a subsequent phase of integration of these simple physical feelings together with the derivate conceptual feeling, the prehending subject may transmute the datum of this conceptual feeling into a characteristic of some nexus containing those prehended actual entities among its members, or of some part of that nexus. In this way the nexus (or its part), thus characterized, is the objective datum of a feeling entertained by this prehending subject.”

To translate out of Whiteheadese, this is essentially saying that many disparate feelings that share a common eternal object, (for example, being red) can be grouped together by the subject and felt as a unity due to this common characteristic. This is quite intuitive. The disparate datum have been transmuted into one complex datum. As such, a feeling of a nexus is a termed a “transmuted” feeling. The physical feelings of the separate entities give rise to a common conceptual feeling, and merged into a nexus.

It must be considered though that the eternal object is not always a simple conceptual feeling. It could be derived by conceptual reversion, and as such, error can be introduced. However, this is also how novelty can be introduced. Possible patterns can be introduced through prehending a nexus with a reverted conceptual feeling. The possibilities and potentials of combination bleed in from the eternal.

Order

A nexus is able to provide the kind of systematic order that allows for the universe to be felt as a community rather than as purely chaotic multiplicity. Whitehead tries to make it clear that there is no such thing as an absolute order. There is no far off event to which all things are moving towards. Order is always order in regards to something. The society of “a ball of mud” has order regarding it’s shape, components, etc. The order can shift in multiple ways. The order of the ball can completely collapse, in which case the society of entities as a ball collapses, though the mud-society would persist.

Societies

A society is a nexus with an order that is not merely imposed from the outside. The members of the society mutually condition each other, and possess a route of inheritance that allows them to sustain and persist along the lines of a single characteristic. As this is about the philosophy of organism, let’s use the example of a single-celled organism as a society. The cell can, within reason, be placed in any environment and sustain itself. The cell is engaging in autopoiesis, and each part of the cell is actively engaged with the others in operating as part of the society. Furthermore, the cell, like almost all societies, has numerous sub-societies and/or nexus within itself, in addition to be part of a society itself. Societies to Whitehead always are always like Matryoshka dolls. Each opening only reveals another layer.

A cell’s organelles, however, are not societies, Whitehead contends. Rather, each organelle is a subordinate nexus of the cellular society. This is because the organelles, while being complex groupings of actual entities, are only able to persist functioning as part of the cell. A rock on the other hand is “corpuscular” society. Corpuscular is a term used to describe how independent the parts of a society are from the society. If I cut a rock in two, I will end up with two rocks, which will not cease to exist or transform into something entirely new. The rock is made up of countless societies which are able to persist independently and stably of the others without losing their pattern. Similarly, certain plants may have a shoot cut off of them, and have that shoot grow into an entirely new and independent plant. A human is less corpuscular than a plant, for a human possesses a centralized center of control, a “regnant society” in their brain. The destruction of this one society leads to the breakdown of the entirety of the rest of the body.

The ideally corpuscular society is made up entirely of what Whitehead terms “enduring objects.” An enduring object is a society composed of a single “strand” of actual entities perpetuating themselves over time. In this manner it enjoys what Whitehead terms a “personal order.” There are no contemporary entities, and at any point in time there will only be one entity of this society in existence if it enjoys a personal order. A rock might appear to be this perfectly corpuscular society, composed entirely of enduring objects, but when we reach the atomic level, we discover atomic societies which may be further broken down. Corpuscularity is thus always a gradient in reality. One of the major points that resonates throughout Whitehead’s work is to always be aware of the level of abstraction we operate at. When we generalize, detail, important or unimportant, is lost. Generalizations are powerful and vital to the operation of not just human life, but the world at large, and indeed, the formulation of the widest possible generalities is the goal of philosophy for Whitehead. Understanding what generalizations or abstractions we operate with, and how they work, is vital to both nation-states and dogs. Nevertheless. We must never mistake the map for the territory.

The Extensive Continuum.

Whitehead builds a rough image of our “societal location” in Process and Reality. We are in an electromagnetic society of atoms, molecules, and the laws of physics as we know them. This itself is situated in a society of geometric entities. Each society requires the society in which it resides to provide an environment that sustains it. If the geometric society broke down, presumably the electromagnetic society would too. Whitehead eventually reaches the widest possible generality, that of the extensive continuum. The dominant characteristic here is as it says: “extensive continuity.” This is merely the feature of entities to be extended in some manner, spatially or otherwise, and their connection with other entities. This is the furthest we can ontologically see, and sadly, where this guide will stop short. The chapters of Process and Reality dealing with this directly are some of the hardest in the book, perhaps in the entire western cannon.

Our next article then, will be the conclusion, which will provide advice and recommendations on how to tackle Whitehead’s labyrinthine philosophy. Supplementary books, lectures, and other resources, many of which have been helpful in writing this series, will also be noted. Lastly, I hope to provide an enticing portrait of what the philosophy of organism means in the context of philosophy at large, and all of the important problems which it can provide answers to.

Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism and the Idealist Trap

Whitehead’s method of deriving his system may seem somewhat obscured to the reader at first. In many sections of Process and Reality, he prefers to merely set down his rules rather than talk about how these rules have been derived. This can be frustrating for many readers, myself included, who find themselves having to accept atomism, God, relationalism, and a myriad of other claims seemingly without justification to understand Whitehead. Absolute Idealists, for example, accuse Whitehead of not being able to self-ground and actually give a full account of experience. As Whitehead is not always clear on these matters, either not having had time to respond to such criticisms, or not finding them worthwhile, this article will attempt to explain as well as speculate a possible answer.

Radical Empiricism

As has been noted elsewhere, Whitehead is a radical empiricist in the vein of William James, though he also takes from Bergson. Radical empiricism holds that we do experience relation between objects, causality, etc. directly, in an attempt to undermine the Humean-Kantian conception of empiricism that had to hold that these must be imposed by the subject. Rather than asking what our minds must be like to experience, Whitehead essentially asks what the world must be like for us to experience it. Whitehead’s anti-Kantian account of experience will have to wait for a future article. If Whitehead can justify radical empiricism, he may continue with his project without fear of attack.

But the mere positing of radical empiricism seems to spring the correlationist-idealist trap. “Whitehead is using thought! He has no reason to trust thought, and thus if he cannot provide something akin to a Hegelian phenomenology of thought, he is helpless. As pure experience cannot self-reflect and develop like thought, the building of a self-necessary system is impossible and Whitehead may be consigned to the dustbin. If reason is employed, then we must be given reason to trust reason.”

It’s important here to note the extreme disconnect that is drawn between thought and the rest of our experience by the idealist. Reason has hermetically sealed itself off from the rest of the world, as if forgetting what gave it life and where it comes from. For an absolute idealist, thought must lift itself by its bootstraps in order to justify itself and place itself into the world. In order to justify us being things in the world, we must blindfold ourselves to it and find our way back out through the development of concepts. Perhaps Whitehead saw this as not worth responding to because he rejects this methodological dualism out of hand along with the bifurcation of nature. If reason, experience, passion, and the world are not separate to begin with, one flowing into the other seamlessly, this problem is a non-problem. But justifying this seems to require reason, and thus the regress continues.

Escaping the Trap

Where Whitehead seems to begin with his place himself behind both thought and pure experience into the perspective of attention. Let’s cut everything out of the picture, even the subject, and simply pay attention to attention. When attention discerns something, everything else is oriented around the point of attention. The point of attention may be anything: some object outside of us, an emotion, or a thought, or a prick of pain in the foot. The field of attention is a point of view with relative focus, but it does not necessarily include within it some subject viewing. All that is present in the point of view is merely a duration of feeling with measured importance Now we seem to be assuming much here, but attention appears to be prerequisite to any accusations against it. In order to think and posit a counterclaim, I must draw an argument/thought into my attention. The most ready objection is that attention is itself a thought/concept and thus falls into the idealist trap.

The counter to this is that if attention, or its concept, is required for conceptualization. We end up in a situation akin to saying that, until cooking is invented, we are unable to pull carrots from the ground. If we cannot conceptualize without attention, and attention is a concept, then we will always be caught in a sort of dependency loop. If, like digestion, attention is something precognitive requisite to its own cognizing, then we are safe to climb from the swamp of thought to the aeroplane of attention and begin our escape from methodological dualism.

The second line of idealist defense is that while attention may be precognitive, anything we can say about it and what it says must involve thought, and thus we trigger the trap. But attention is its own ground of validity, and thought must answer to it, not attention to thought. Now that attention is decidedly precognitive, thought is relegated to the realm of representation, and it need not ask whether it can be trusted. A representational scheme of thought is successful if it is able to successfully direct attention to some feature disclosed in experience. For example, divisibility as attention is able to focus more or less specifically on what it is attentive of. All of these claims, using thought, are now able to be justified on precognitive grounds, as the claims are not being made and justified the perspective of thought, but are being presented to attention. If a thought indicates some possible element of experience, attention does not need to ask “can I trust it?” and can merely discover for itself. If it fails to find what thought indicates in experience, then the thought may be dismissed.  The “true method of discovery” may be revealed now:

“The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation” (Process and Reality 5).

Thought is hobbled and unable to strike back, for to do so would be to undermine itself, if it has admitted attention to be a requisite precognition. In fact, thought is not even a distinct kind of feeling for attention, merely one kind among many. Radical empiricism, combined with Bergsonian direct realism, may be established from this foothold, avoiding the pitfalls of “natural consciousness.” Thought is relegated to being a speculative and communicative tool, and one that is limited. It must always appeal to the facts disclosed in attention. When we speak and formulate principles, we are merely putting forth symbolic representations that we admit cannot sound the true depths of experience.

Importance

What is disclosed to us is not true or false, but important. Attention is always to something with relative importance or relevance to attention. While truth may be relevant and importantfor example, when one observes a scientific experimentit is quite the opposite when one sits down to watch a play, walks down the street, or hugs their child. What is not true in the strict sense is often a matter of the utmost importance and something that can attract much interest. We can learn much from examining the way the half-truths and fuzzy instincts convey vivid information from our environment. The philosopher’s disdain for all which cannot be “knowledge” has ironically caused a poverty thereof. I do not mean to be a romantic, that all that is necessary is to simply hearken to beauty, but we must understand the emotional tinge to all that is, even the calculations of reason. We are not attracted to concepts not because they are true, but because we find them important. If there is concern for truth, it is always that, concern. We value truth precisely because we find it important, and importance cannot be cognized.

Importance is in a sense a pragmatic gesture, but it is not utilitarian or asking about the “use” of something. Importance in experience is more than that. Importance is just the quality of an experience that makes it relevant to attention, what allows it to be discerned in the first place. If we are attentive, more important facts may be disclosed. Saying that something is “important” does not necessarily grant it some permanent status above others, it is merely what is able to be noticed, and what is found interesting. It may become entirely irrelevant in one moment, replaced by something previously thought irrelevant, perhaps because something new and interesting was pointed out.

Importance is impossible to adequately cognize. Importance is fundamentally emotional and aesthetic; we may have our reasons for feeling things to be important, but any sufficient inquiry will reveal that we merely feel things to be important. There can be no other explanation for this which will not enter into either performative contradiction or infinite regress. When we speculate and create concepts, we do not need to see if we can “trust” them. There is merely the simple test to see if they can refer to something important enough for attention to notice it. To that end is where Whitehead is pointedtowards the understanding of the importance of things and the expansion of our attention so that what was always before us can be discovered:

“The use of philosophy is to maintain an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system. It reverses the slow descent of accepted thought towards the inactive commonplace. If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken. But the purpose of philosophy is to rationalize mysticism: not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coordinated.”

–Alfred Whitehead