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.