The Critique of Overstatement

My good friend A.W suggested that I provide a critique of a passage of Bernstein as it offers several entry points into the key claims of idealists. It should be noted that this article is still pending his review and feedback, in case I have made naive and misinformed characterization of the arguments therein, and thus may be subject to future editing. I will be building a lot off of my previous article about what I coined “The Idealist Trap,” but shall quote the relevant parts so that cross-reading is unnecessary.

The quote, in its entirety, is as follows:

“The Concept, when it has developed into a concrete existence that is itself free, is nothing other than the “I,” or pure self-consciousness, but the “I” is first this pure self-related unity.” —Hegel, Science of Logic

[Bernstein:] This sentence basically means the following: What he is claiming here is that the driving idea is that nothing can be of significance in my mind unless I can put it into functional conversation with everything else in my mind (call that the Holism requirement), hence the fundamental structures and principles of mind that Kant calls Categories and Hegel calls the Concept are functions of unity. So the unity of the Self and the unity of the Concept are the same, but since the work of unifying is the condition for anything being recognizable by the Human mind at all, then the unity of the subject is responsible for the unity of the world, or rather the world comes to appear as a world at all only if it can appear as in accord with the functions providing for the unity and freedom of subjectivity.

This is the principle of idealism (the unity of self = unity of concept = unity of the world). The principle of idealism simply states that we can have a world at all, and to represent the world to ourselves, only through conceptual unification where establishing such conceptual unification simultaneously yields the unity of the Self with itself. The world necessarily appears as my world. In generating the unity of itself with itself the Self is determining itself, it is acting in a free way, not following from without.

For Plato there is a unity to the world, but it is not the unity in my mind. First it’s the unity of the Ideas that maybe I can internalize to order my mind to get in accordance with, but for Hegel it’s the freedom of self-determining subjectivity itself that generates categorial unity and in so doing it is unifying itself with the world. Making the world determinate presupposes the self-determining act of Reason (that’s the principle of Idealism restated and the entire structure of the Logic). This is all about ‘The space of Reason is the space of freedom”, and therefore just seems to be an objective Idealist claim. This is all about the mind securing itself, and in securing itself it secures the world, and that turns out to be not reductive or idealist.”

Immediate Self-Reflexivity

Now, let’s break this down, starting with the bit by Hegel about the “I.” I want to make a pedantic claim, one that is almost meaningless outside the context of this discussion, but one that I think is nonetheless important; in fact, you might want to just skip this section entirely. It is of little to no practical interest, and is almost a technicality. In fact, it is over a statement that I do not even disagree with at face value. Now, the German Idealists, from my experience of them, have much interest in this “I.” The “I” seems to be presupposed in all claims, an absolute that we can never do without. How can it ever be false for me to say that “I am aware that I am aware?” (recall the cogito). I’m no Buddhist self-denier; I believe that we have a sense of self, and we definitely exist. Shoes are not doing our thinking for us. What is important is that we must always conclude that we did the thinking after-the-fact. It is only through the understanding of the actual world, and the understanding of its self-organization, that we can certainly conclude ourselves to be actors.

What is really going on in the statement “I am aware that I am aware” is the idea that there is an awareness (in this case, myself) which is self-aware. This seems all well and good, but we need to be very carefully examine what is meant by each word.

Generally, what we mean when we say we are aware of an awareness is that we have some awarenesssay, the awareness that we are riding a bikeand then a higher-order second awareness. We start thinking about “this awareness of riding a bike.” When we turn our attention elsewhere, the awareness of bike riding does not go away, lest we fall off the bike. We have a higher order awareness moving about. This is sometimes called an “attention network.”  If there are two awarenesses, my point stands. We have one awareness, we can call it ourselves, aware of another awareness. Further, in order to have this higher-order awareness, there must be a causal order to the arising of awareness. First I am aware of something, and then I am aware of my awareness. This passes it from an absolute claim to a (admittedly extremely solid and unlikely to change anytime soon) relative claim about the actual world, the directly immediate past awareness.

The key problem here is, if we are aware of our awareness with the same awareness, this is a claim which is as absurd to me as saying you can kick and, with this same kick, kick your kick. Or, if you prefer a general case, do an action x and have action x, in the same action, do x to the x. We are being aware and with this same being aware, being aware of our being aware. This leads to some rather absurd conclusions:

  1. Things can both happen to themselves, yet at the same time not happen to themselves.
  2. We have to admit contemporaneous causation, which essentially throws the entire notion of contemporaneousness out the window. In fact, it becomes difficult to even talk about a difference between past and present, as causal chains would begin to loop into each other indefinitely.

Now, people are welcome to accept that this is possible, and indeed, Hegelians seem to do something like this in the Force and Understanding chapter of the Phenomenology, but it seems to me that it leads down a path that radically violates basic ideas about the world. We can restrict this self-reflexivity to consciousness, but this is unsatisfying to me. Why should consciousness be so special? We can maintain subjectivity, freedom, et cetera without making consciousness into something so counterintuitive.

The last trick here is to try and say that, “I” am always the one positing this. I cannot deny that the thoughts came from me. Indeed, I cannot practically, but I cannot claim the thoughts did come from me unless we accept this immediate self-reflection. I cannot claim I have done something until it has been done. What has been done *has been* and is in the past. The claim about awareness thus becomes a claim not about the claimer, but about the immediate past. We are always forced to discover this “I” in retrospect, after it has finished. Where we go from this sort of blindness in regards to what is contemporaneous is a subject for another time, but there is certainly room to maneuver, though it requires making some interesting meta-philosophical moves, some of which will be discussed below. The point is to get to a radical empiricist epistemology which does not collapse in the face of mere concepts.

To summarize, consciousness and experience is, as Kant discovered, a constructive process, but it is constantly constructing. Our standpoint is never from the constructed, but the being-constructed and constructing. The self, and indeed all enduring objects, are always complex series of constructive events stretched over space and time. Here’s what Whitehead has to say on the matter:

” ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ is wrongly translated, ‘I think, therefore I am’. It is never bare thought or bare existence that we are aware of. I find myself as essentially a unity of emotions, enjoyments, hopes, fears, regrets, valuations of alternatives, decisions—all of them subjective reactions to the environment as active in my nature. My unity—which is Descartes’ ‘I am’—is my process of shaping this welter of material into a consistent pattern of feelings. The individual enjoyment is what I am in my role of a natural activity, as I shape the activities of the environment into a new creation, which is myself at this moment; and yet, as being myself, it is a continuation of the antecedent world. If we stress the role of the environment, this process is causation. If we stress the role of my immediate pattern of active enjoyment, this process is self-creation. If we stress the role of the conceptual anticipation of the future whose existence is a necessity in the nature of the present, this process is the teleological aim at some ideal in the future. This aim, however, is not really beyond the present process. For the aim at the future is an enjoyment in the present. It thus effectively conditions the immediate self-creation of the new creature. (Modes of Thought Lecture 8).”

It’s important to not be bogged down in the turn of phrase that Whitehead has to adopt simply to speak like a normal human being. He is forced to say “I shape” by the peculiarity of the language, but that the I is shaping. We are this enjoyment and creation. Ignoring the nuance of what is truly being said here would leave Whitehead equally guilty.

Lastly, I believe Nietzsche puts to rest any other objections that could be made to this argument:

“16. …When I analyze the process that is expressed in the sentence, ‘I think,’ I find a whole series of daring assertions, the argumentative proof of which would be difficult, perhaps impossible: for instance, that it is I who think, that there must necessarily be something that thinks, that thinking is an activity and operation on the part of a being who is thought of as a cause, that there is an ‘ego,’ and finally, that it is already determined what is to be designated by thinking—that I KNOW what thinking is. For if I had not already decided within myself what it is, by what standard could I determine whether that which is just happening is not perhaps ‘willing’ or ‘feeling’? In short, the assertion ‘I think,’ assumes that I COMPARE my state at the present moment with other states of myself which I know, in order to determine what it is; on account of this retrospective connection with further ‘knowledge,’ it has, at any rate, no immediate certainty for me.”—In place of the “immediate certainty” in which the people may believe in the special case, the philosopher thus finds a series of metaphysical questions presented to him, veritable conscience questions of the intellect, to wit: “Whence did I get the notion of ‘thinking’? Why do I believe in cause and effect? What gives me the right to speak of an ‘ego,’ and even of an ‘ego’ as cause, and finally of an ‘ego’ as cause of thought?” He who ventures to answer these metaphysical questions at once by an appeal to a sort of INTUITIVE perception, like the person who says, “I think, and know that this, at least, is true, actual, and certain”—will encounter a smile and two notes of interrogation in a philosopher nowadays. “Sir,” the philosopher will perhaps give him to understand, “it is improbable that you are not mistaken, but why should it be the truth?”

17. With regard to the superstitions of logicians, I shall never tire of emphasizing a small, terse fact, which is unwillingly recognized by these credulous minds—namely, that a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish; so that it is a PERVERSION of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.” ONE thinks; but that this “one” is precisely the famous old “ego,” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an “immediate certainty.” After all, one has even gone too far with this “one thinks”—even the “one” contains an INTERPRETATION of the process, and does not belong to the process itself. One infers here according to the usual grammatical formula—”To think is an activity; every activity requires an agency that is active; consequently”… It was pretty much on the same lines that the older atomism sought, besides the operating “power,” the material particle wherein it resides and out of which it operates—the atom. More rigorous minds, however, learnt at last to get along without this “earth-residuum,” and perhaps some day we shall accustom ourselves, even from the logician’s point of view, to get along without the little “one” (to which the worthy old “ego” has refined itself)” (BGE Chapter 5).

Importance Redux

Bernstein then begins to speak:

“What he is claiming here is that the driving idea is that nothing can be of significance in my mind unless I can put it into functional conversation with everything else in my mind (call that the Holism requirement), hence the fundamental structures and principles of mind that Kant calls Categories and Hegel calls the Concept are functions of unity.”

Bernstein is not entirely wrong, but what he describes is only a specific instance of the gradation of importance. Importance is a prerequisite to the formation of concepts, something precognitive and more fundamental. What Bernstein appears to be saying is that something must be made into a concept to become important and relevant to us. The exact opposite is the case. Something is first important/relevant and then may be conceptualized.

“Importance is a generic notion which has been obscured by the overwhelming prominence of a few of its innumerable species. The terms ‘morality’, ‘logic’, ‘religion’, ‘art’, have each of them been claimed as exhausting the whole meaning of importance. Each of them denotes a subordinate species. But the genus stretches beyond any finite group of species. There are perspectives of the universe to which morality is irrelevant, to which logic is irrelevant, to which religion is irrelevant, to which art is irrelevant. By this false limitation the activity expressing the ultimate aim infused into the process of nature has been trivialized into the guardianship of mores, or of rules of thought, or of mystic sentiment, or of aesthetic enjoyment. No one of these specializations exhausts the final unity of purpose in the world” (Modes of Thought Lecture 1).

This idea of importance is deeply tied to attention. If I am walking through the woods at night and there is a sudden flash of white light that I do not notice, it has failed to become relevant. Something may become briefly important, yet then quickly become unimportant. Humans, being conscious creatures, are prone to conceptualizing and bringing things into holistic schemes whenever anything is important, but It’s worth noting though that animals certainly appear to have an idea of importance. Cats, dogs, horses, and even bacteria all organize and react to their environment based on the experiential relevance of the different parts of our environment.

Importance is able to act as its own criteria of success. If importance really is required for conceptualization, but must first be conceptualized, there is a dependency loop that cannot be resolved. If it is rather like digestion, something precognitive yet required for cognition, then we are free to step out of the swamp of concepts into the aeroplane of attention. Importance is impossible to adequately cognize, as it 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 them 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. We may give them a full body search for further importance, or turn them away.

What is so damning about the notion of importance is that, once acknowledged, it covers all our concepts the sticky gel of affectivity. Concepts become tainted with a layer of emotion. Bernstein is right that things must enter into a holistic relationship, but he is wrong that this activity. If concepts must be important to be conceptualized in us, then they are coated gently with emotion and become feelings like any other. Now, I’d like to quote Steven Shaviro’s essay Pulses of Emotion at length as it provides a better explanation of where this goes than I am able. While he is mostly discussing Whitehead in relation to Kant, there is much relevance to the topic at hand.

“An act of feeling is an encounter – a contingent event, an opening to the outside– rather than an intrinsic, predetermined relationship. And feeling changes whatever it encounters, even in the act of “conforming” to it. That is why feeling is irreducible to cognition. It isn’t anything that we already know. The problem with cognitive theories of mind, and with hermeneutical modes of interpretation, is that they reduce the unknown to the already-known, the already-determined. These theories assume that my not-knowing is only a contingency for myself, that ignorance is a particular state that I am in; while they imagine that the object I am seeking to know is in itself already perfectly determinate, if only I could come to know it. They thereby elide “experience as a constructive functioning,” and restrict their attention to that which has already been experienced and constructed. They only get half the picture; they trace the vector backwards into the past, but not forwards into the future. They grasp the actual, but miss the potential, the yet-to-be. They appreciate “conformity of feeling,” but ignore deviation and novelty. They analyze whatever has already been felt, selected, and determined; but they miss the very process of selection and determination, which is feeling itself…

All this might sound like the sheerest romantic blather, the sort of naive protest of Life against Intellect, and Feeling against Thought, that decades of modernist critical theory, and postmodernist deconstruction, have taught us to distrust. But I want to insist that it is, rather, a rigorous expression of Whitehead’s “critique of pure feeling,” and of his conversion of Kant from transcendental idealism to transcendental empiricism. The process of this conversion is twofold. First, Whitehead recasts Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic,” so that the intuition of space and time is “not productive of the ordered world, but derivative from it” (1929/1978,72). And second, Whitehead extends the scope of the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” so that it also includes all those operations – like relations of causality – that Kant assigned to the “Transcendental Logic.” This means that, far from exalting anything like a sentimental cult of spontaneous feeling, or a Romantic theory of the creative imagination, Whitehead eliminates Kant’s notion of spontaneity altogether. For Kant, “our spontaneity of cognition,” or understanding, “is our ability to think the object of sensible intuition” (1996, 106-107), which is something entirely separate from the intuition itself. Whitehead rejects this dualism; he refers all experience, thought included, to a process of being-affected, a process located within what Kant calls the receptivity of sensible intuition. 17 Action, then, cannot be opposed to passive reception, in the way that traditional metaphysics opposes form to matter, or mind to body, or essence to accident. It is rather that activity, no less than passivity, is a dimension of receptivity itself. Every experience, every feeling, is at one and the same time an “inheritance” from the past and a fresh creation. And both of these dimensions are contained within an open affectivity. “The separation of the emotional experience from the presentational intuition,” a separation that Kant presupposes, and that is necessary for cognition, is in fact quite rare, since it is only “a high abstraction of thought” (1929/1978, 162-163). More generally, there is a continuum from primordial, entirely “conformal feelings,” to later, or higher, stages of “supplementary feeling.” In conformal feeling, “the how of feeling reproduces what is felt,” so that it “merely transforms the objective content into subjective feelings.” Supplemental feelings, to the contrary, actively involve “the subjective appropriation of the objective data” (164-165). That is to say, supplemental feelings may alter the data, or wish to alter the data, or deny the data, or compare and contrast the given data with other (remembered or imagined) data, or self-reflexively respond to the first, conformal responses to the data – and so on, almost ad infinitum.

But all of these are still forms of receptivity, still ways of feeling the data. There is no point at which we pass from receptivity to spontaneity, from relational response to pure originality, or from emotion to “clear and distinct” cognition. Even the most complex and reflexive modes of thought are still instances of supplemental feeling. As such, they continue to “involve essential compatibility” with the initial conformal feelings from which they arose, so that “the process exhibits an inevitable continuity of functioning” (Shaviro 15-17).

What is happening here is largely an explanation of Whitehead’s reversal of Kant, merely describing the intended effects. This is important for understanding the important part which comes next:

“If feeling, rather than cognition, is the basis of all experience, and if “apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness”(167), then the only way of organizing and ordering this experience must be an immanent one, from within subjective feeling itself. We know that, in fact, experience is not as chaotic as it would have to be if Hume’s skeptical speculations were correct. Our experience always displays an immanent order; if anything, in fact, it has too much order. No Rimbaudian “dérèglement de tous les sens” is ever enough to disrupt it. Most traditional metaphysics is concerned with grounding the order of experience in “clear and distinct” cognition: as if, were it not for philosophy’s strong guiding hand, everything would immediately break down. [bold mine] But Whitehead knows that such fears are baseless. Protecting rational order is not the problem. The real difficulty is how to account for the order, or the “essential compatibility,”that continues to organize and regulate experience, no matter what we do to shake it up, and even in the absence of cognition. In other words, Whitehead is concerned with what today we would call “emergent order” or “self-organization.” In rejecting Kant’s “Transcendental Logic” as the source of this order, Whitehead is left only with his revised version of the “Transcendental Aesthetic.” Nothing else can provide an immanent principle, or criterion, for order within the boundaries of mere feeling” (Shaviro 17).

What is important to realize is that this sticky emotional importance is not the swamp which traps philosophy. We are able to continue here by the method of speculative philosophy, as described by Whitehead:

“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.”

We can step outside of the cage of concepts and bring them to heel under the condition of importance. This is a pragmatic judgment of sorts, but unless we wish to deny the emotional foundation of all experience, aesthetics simply becomes a more fundamental notion than the othersone that they must answer to. In fact, our concepts and thoughts already are judged by how important they are found to be. No cognizing would be done if there was nothing interested about doing it. It is not that men are drawn to truth, for it is certainly something always behind emotion:

“Whitehead’s immanent criterion for order can only be an aesthetic one. Truth and understanding are not adequate to the task: for feeling is more basic than cognition, and “it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true” (1929/1978, 259; 1933/1967, 244). Indeed, “in itself,and apart from other factors, there seems to be no special importance about the truth-relation” (1933/1967, 265). These “other factors” that make truth “interesting” are, precisely, non-cognitive feelings. Judgments of truth – or, as Whitehead prefers to call them, “propositions” or “theories” – are only important when they are felt, and to the extent that they are felt. In asserting this, Whitehead is very much a Jamesian pragmatist. The pragmatic test for truth is the interest that it sustains; “the primary function of theories is as a lure for feeling, thereby providing immediacy of enjoyment and purpose” (1929/1978, 184). Truth is finally a matter, not of empirical verification, but of “enjoyment and purpose,” or (to use Whitehead’s more frequent term) “satisfaction.” That is why “Beauty is a wider, and more fundamental, notion than Truth” (1933/1967, 265).”

[Footnote]: It is important to point out, once again, that this means “not a relativity of truth, but, on the contrary, a truth of the relative.” James’ and Whitehead’s pragmatism is not a slipshod relativism, but rather a claim about the situatedness of truth. A truth that is not “important,” or not strongly felt, does not thereby cease to be true; and a false proposition doesn’t become true, merely by virtue of being invested with intense feeling or great aesthetic appeal. An unimportant truth is just that: unimportant. But it may become important, if it is invested by feeling. And when a false proposition operates effectively as a “lure,” so that it is invested with great feeling, one result may be the arousal of an “appetition” that works towards changing the world in order to make the proposition true. This is the very basis of change and Creative Advance…”

It can be said that we are “speaking with concepts” and being contradictory here, but when we put importance in its proper place, thought does not become an entity which, like a spoiled child, grows out of control and pulls itself by its bootstraps to the incredible heights of dialectics, but rather becomes an imaginative tool which can declare what is important and speculate as to what that importance might-be. Reason may be interrogated, and if it is able to direct us to something we find important, then it has succeeded; if not, we may forget about it. It is a mistake to try to put reason on its own ground, for it is merely denying its inherent emotional base, as the very act of searching reveals. As Whitehead allegedly said of the Hegelians, they are guilty of overstatement, both of the abilities of reason and its scope. Just because reason is emotive, and does not discover truly absolute truths, does not mean we must throw civilization out the window. A philosophy which begins from aesthetics may still develop an ethics, a philosophy of history, and a coherent metaphysics, as Adventures of Ideas and Process and Reality show. All that we must remember is that life first and foremost “lies below this grade of mentality. Life is the enjoyment of emotion, derived from the past and aimed at the future. It is the enjoyment of emotion which was then, which is now, and which will be then” (Modes of Thought Lecture 8).

In short:

  1. Thought, bodily feelings, etc. must have some aesthetic affective capacity in order for us to think and feel them. They must be “important.”
  2. This importance is prior and requisite to thoughts, a prerequisite for the generation of concepts. This ’emotional’ factor allows and guides our interest.
  3. from 1 and 2, as affectivity is prior aesthetics must be first philosophy
  4. Therefore we must conduct a critique of pure feeling with a radical empiricist aesthetic criterion à la William James and Whitehead.

The World

“The world necessarily appears as my world…”

This is the claim of Bernstein which I find the least interesting. I don’t wish to build a rigorous argument to refute it, as I’m mostly indifferent to the claim. Instead, I’ll simply put forth the first objections that come to mind.

The first is that, while important objects are important for us, we are not quite limited to merely limited to getting things as they are important to us. Importance always wants to wander, our discernments disclose relations and new entities to us, and these relations are not primarily for us. When a dog barks at something, something important for-it is partially disclosed to us. There are twinges of subjectivity always left, but the actual world seems to constantly disclose things that are beyond us, important only to other objects. People are interested in different professionsones you know exist but will never know about. What it seems to me is that a reversal is in order. I necessarily appear to be a part of the world, a world of many creative entities, some of which I may have mutual interest with, and others with which I have not. Each entity attests to an actual world which it is a part of, and the world to its actual entities. What is grasped by thought is not thereby converted entirely into thought, and defending this would require another article, but I do not mean to refute, merely to highlight some possible avenues of escape from the claim. The thought of William James provides an excellent “escape attempt” in my mind.


The relevant parts of the quote have, as far as I can tell, been addressed. If we must attach some degree of emotive importance to each and every feature of experience, then we have no other choice than to make aesthetics first philosophy. This does not mean we must never rise above mere aesthetics, or never develop a rational scheme. It means we must rethink what it means to do philosophy. As Whitehead says in the final lecture of Modes of Thought:

“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.”

If the pragmatic use of beauty transforms me into a mystic, then I wear the title of mystic with pride, for what else is philosophy if not the plunging of “depths as yet unspoken?”

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.


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