Relations, Realism, Nature, and the Goal of Whitehead’s philosophy

I’m writing this post to clear up a few ideas in Whitehead that may not have been clear in previous posts, as well as common misunderstandings that arose often in arguments with a certain Hegelian friend of mine who happened to help design this website. The problems deal more specifically with the Shaviro-inspired speculative realist interpretation of Whitehead this blog happens to like. The most common misunderstandings that arise in discussing Whitehead have to do with his relationalism, his realism, his conception of nature, and his goal/method. Working through these misunderstandings provide an excellent tour of what could be termed organic realism, so rather than being a defense against criticisms, I’m merely seeking to clarify what is already stated.

Relations without Relata?

Certain readers might have noticed in my post on actual entities that they appear to be composed entirely of prehensions, a type of relation. It at first might seem that this leads to an infinite regress; each feeling is of another feeling which is itself a relation. Furthermore, I made the mistake of saying that an actual entity only exists in terms of its relations, which is only superficially true.

Actual entities escape infinite regress because each feeling or relation is not reducible to its relata. A feeling is not a bracketing, but a vectoring. It is not merely a negation or addition, like a simple thing saying “I’m not this!” or “I’m that!” Each prehension is not a passive reception of data, but rather an actual act that performs operations on its datum to make itself into a real definite fact, which itself can be felt. Its datum likewise is already a definite feeling, not reducible merely to what is felt. There would be infinite regress if the world which an actual entity becomes of was not already a settled, definite fact, and the concrescence was feeling other concrescences, but this is not the case.

Another unfortunate thing about that article on actual entities was making a comparison to Hegel’s something-or-other logic. There’s a comparison to be made here definitely, but the similarities here are only skin deep. Where Hegel’s logic is a negatory act, grossly oversimplified as: “The something is not the other, the other is not the something, the non-being of the other is the being of the something,” Whitehead’s relations are primarily positive inclusions. They’re not dialectical, they can be completely indifferent to each other, complementary, and they don’t contradict in the Hegelian manner. If there is contradiction, it arises during the concrescence of an entity, and it is always eliminated by the final satisfaction. Negative prehensions which exclude objects are always secondary, something that happens to remove incompatibilities in feelings so that they can be integrated. This is opposed to a Hegelian “labor of the negative.”

The actual entity at first has a conformal flooding of feelings from its actual world, a positive event. “I am all this,” the actual entity says, “the individualization of the universe.” The rush of feelings from the world around it, in order to attain the unity they aim at, must be simplified, integrated, valuated, compared, contrasted and only occasionally negated in order to create a satisfaction. This¬† process of concrescence adds a new definite fact into the world, which itself must be¬†brought into a unity with the rest. In this manner, there is a constant rhythm of integration.

Rather than an entity merely popping out of nothing to feel the settled world, the many facts of the settle world reach out for integration, and what Whitehead terms the actual entity as “subject” emerges. The various alterations made to be feeling do not really happen because of some hidden factor in the concrescence, rather, they are a simple consequence of the fact that the feelings are seeking unity in the subject. If a feeling can’t be unified, it will alter, simplify, or be discarded. It cannot be overstated that the subject is always arising out of the world, rather than the world from the subject, and that the feelings are not aimed at a subject, but rather, they aim themselves.

Hopefully it can be seen from this that the actual entity, while each feeling is relational in character, it is not a reducible things. Each feeling is a unique expression of its datum/relata. Furthermore, each actual entity is not reducible merely to its feelings in an analogous manner.


Whitehead’s realism is a peculiar mix of William James and Henri Bergson. It is anti-representational. Rather than us ever dealing with representations or “mere appearance,” of objects, we deal with parts of objects directly. Rather than seeing a mental representation of an apple which can err, we are actually seeing a real part of the apple. There is a partial identification of cause with effect; what I feel of the apple is “vectored” into me by my feeling of it and becomes a real part of my constitution. Subject and object interpenetrate, but they also withdraw from each other.

For example, when I look at my friend’s face, I really do see their face, and if they look back, they really do see mine. We interpenetrate, but we are not unified. I still have my own thoughts, and my friend has their own. We can even speculate as to what the other might be thinking from the expression of our face, but we can misinterpret each other. I may think my friend is happy from his expression, but he is in fact, merely faking a smile. Perhaps if I was more attentive, I might have discerned some factor I missed that would reveal his true feelings. My senses do not lie to me, rather, error arises because of both the impossibility of feeling the object in its entirety, and because not all of the information has been weaseled out of what I sense.

There is one more factor here, the fact that each actual entity feels all the others in a unique manner with a unique subjective form. These subjective forms are not false appearances, but rather, really how one actual entity enters into another.

Lets suppose two people are examining an object, and one is viewing it in a manner that creates an optical illusion. While everyone else would see the object as red, the optical illusion presents the object as being green to those who are under it. While Whitehead does not discuss this directly, I hold that the object really is green to the people under the optical illusion. It is not a matter of illusion at all, it is the real way in which that object is entering into their constitution. After all, If the object was a button, and I, aware that the person was under an optical illusion, told them to push the green-colored button, they really would push it, and they would not be incorrect. If I told them to push the red button, by contrast, they would rightfully be confused, for there is no red button for them.

They could of course, weasel information out of the object. If they examined the light wavelengths and discovered that the button was giving off red, not green light, then they would be able to determine some factor other than the light was causing the object to be green. This factor could be in their eyes, their brain, or something else entirely.

Consider an example of when our senses conflict, the famous example of a stick partially dipped into water. It appears that our senses are conflicting. The stick appears to bend below the water, but if we feel it with our hand, it seems straight. Neither sense is lying to you, or even really conflicting. The real information that can be ferreted out of the visual sensation is that “the water is bending the light from the stick.” This is not immediately apparent, but further experience, touching the stick, will disclose what I might have failed to notice in vision previously. The error, Whitehead would say, is always arising when we are engaging in symbolic reference. More on this in a future article.

The Bifurcation of Nature

This brings us nicely into the next topic, something Whitehead terms “the bifurcation of nature.” This is the division of nature into secondary and primary qualities. The former are typically considered to be things like color, odor, and other sense-data. We consider that these would vanish without any conscious experiencing subject. Primary qualities, by contrast are inherent to the object. Things like the shape of an object that most people consider to exist independently of the observer.

While this may seem quite reasonable, Whitehead rejects this distinction entirely. Color is not something painted onto on object by the subject onto a colorless world, but something actually unique to the object, and forming a part of its constitution. Light is not reducible to merely photons, Whitehead claims. In fact, these physical abstractions like light waves are always that to Whitehead, mere abstractions from our actual experience. To assert, as scientific materialism often does, that color is merely a result of the frequency of light, is a textbook case of “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” This is when we create an abstraction from empirical evidence, in order to model or explain, and then assert that this abstraction we have built is more real than what it is abstracting from.

Some people often try to say that, since your brain is “merely chemicals” that all your actions are not free, and that your life is just a meaningless chemical reaction. They commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. What does it mean to be a chemical reaction though? Only your direct experience can tell you this. This might just be me, but it appears that being a chemical reaction means a whole damn lot. In fact, the only way we got these chemical examinations of the brain is through empirical experience. To retroactively reject what our empirical experience tells us, of a rich and vivid, and irreducible life, is to undermine itself. The bifurcation of nature leads the sciences, which Whitehead greatly respects, to having to “explain away” things like consciousness when it’s abstractions can’t explain them. What the sciences could benefit from is to be more empirical, is all Whitehead is saying. If science is having a difficulty in explaining consciousness, a definite element of our experience, it should not try to “explain it away” and dismiss it as a mere illusion, but actually seek to understand the processes behind it while understanding that, like color, it is not reducible to its abstraction.

The particular light frequency that causes us to see red is red itself, at least in how it enters into our world. The eternal object (Whitehead’s term for potentialities or forms) of red is a factor in the constitution of the entities making up the light. The light has a color to itself, but it will always express itself uniquely to all the other entities. Again, this uniqueness of presentation is not a false error, but rather, the real way that the object is entering into subjects. To read about how this unique presentation, the “subjective form,” emerges in detail look here.

This doctrine seems somewhat bizarre, but if a realist account is to be given, not an inch of ground can be ceded to subjectivism. The admission that the color of experience is arising purely because of the subject, and that it would vanish without anyone to see it, is a slippery slope into total subjectivity, in which objects literally do not have any properties without conscious observers. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant were aware of this, and collapsed the bifurcation in the direction of the subject. Whitehead rejects the bifurcation entirely. For him, it is always emerging because of a failure to really take all of experience into account.

The Goal of the Philosophy of Organism

Whitehead’s method, and his goal as a result, is not a neutral one. Whitehead has a problem he wants to solve, the bifurcation of nature. He already has decided from the outset that such a bifurcation is false. I for one, need no proof of its falsehood. While he does argue against it, his goal is not to refute but rather to describe a system which can overcome it without having to “explain away” parts of our experience, or having to give up the status of the sciences. Whitehead is a pre-critical philosopher in this respect. Given that this is false, what must be true?

Whitehead aims for “full disclosure” of experience. This is not in the sense of revealing some hidden knowledge or seeking revelation, but rather the humble declaration of what has always been under our noses. Whitehead is seeking awareness of all the elements of experience, in such a way that not one piece is discarded or disparaged as “lesser” or “irrational” or “illusory.” This is why the theme of concern takes such a key role in his philosophical works. Whitehead wants philosophy, above all else, to have the goal of simply making people aware, not of some grand truth or mystical wisdom, but of what has always been with them without their noticing.

Leave your comment