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.

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