The Speculative Theodyssey of A. N. Whitehead: (2) Epistemology


We will recapitulate the quote from A. N. Whitehead that we concluded the first part of this consideration withal:

Let us…assume that each entity, of whatever type, essentially involves its own connection with the universe of other things. This connection can be viewed as being what the universe is for that entity either in the way of accomplishment or in the way of potentiality. It can be termed the perspective of the universe for that entity. For example, these are the perspectives of the universe for the number three, and for the colour blue, and for any one definite occasion of realized fact.

Each perspective for any one qualitative abstraction such as a number, or a colour, involves an infinitude of alternative potentialities. On the other hand, the perspective for a factual occasion involves the elimination of alternatives in respect to the matter-of-fact realization involved in that present occasion, and the reduction of alternatives as to the future; since that occasion, as a member of its own contemporary world, is one of the factors conditioning the future beyond itself.

In Whitehead’s words we find ourselves again confronted with the mystery of the one and the many, as well as the perennial philosophic riddle of subject and object. Whitehead indicates the former with his enigmatic assertion that “The many become one and are increased by one.” Let us now consider whether it be possible to integrate subject and object into Whitehead’s conception and thereby reveal these two questions to be but different aspects of a single tremendous mystery. Manifold thinkers sundered the polarity of experience in manifold manners, but a standard model of perception imagines a subjective representation of a world of objects. This picture, however, is clearly unsuitable for Whitehead’s philosophy. Whitehead, in contrast to the typical dualistic model, delineates a framework in which the distinction between subject and object is one not of metaphysics or epistemology, but simply of sequence. Actual occasions, as subjects, are continually crystallising into objects and offering themselves to the prehension of new subjects. Thus we may invite into our mind’s eye the image of an unbounded infinity of momentaneously-prehending subjects. Whitehead calls the latter “actual occasions,” but we could just as well call them “temporal subjects” and counterpose them against an universe of “eternal objects.” Sensitive societies of such actual occasions constitute a limitless fleet of spaceless and invisible subjects traversing the open sea of forever-passing time. Each actual occasion appears as particle only in a virtual present. Then, in the flashing instant of actuality, the ephemeral subject merges with the waves which are the widening wakes of all of its innumerable counterparts. Thus we must cite the final words of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous work:

[s]o we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

“Current” and “actual” share one of their meanings. Thus, to imagine time as the current of actuality, and space as the geometric relations between the intermingling wakes, is an useful heuristic to overcome the tendency to mistakenly reify space and time. Whitehead describes this fallacy as misplacing concreteness onto objects of abstraction. In this case, such a fallacy would consist in intellectually “drawing off” or abstracting a single aspect of what is inherently manifold and concrete, and then supposing the former to be something independent. As a skeleton is senseless without the organism that formed it, so matter, eo ipso, is no less of a conceptual corpse. Two other extraordinarily significant examples of falsely-imputed concreteness are (1) the conception of an Euclidean space that subsists in abstraction from the entities that it relates, and (2) time as something that could flow irrespective of, and in independence from, the eventsthat to witnesses. Time does not pass; rather it is itself the passage. Likewise space does not contain objects but is instead the tissue of relation between them. Societies of actual occasions are martyrs. They bear witness to time by perishing into space, which is an holy graveyard whose scope is measured by the relations of their crosses. One is reminded of the letter by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

How all things are in migration! How they seek refuge in us. How each of them desires to be relieved of externality and to live again in the Beyond which we enclose and deepen within ourselves. We are convents of lived things, dreamed things, impossible things; all that is in awe of this century saves itself within us and there, on its knees, pays its debt to eternity.

Little cemeteries that we are, adorned with the flowers of our futile gestures, containing so many corpses that demand that we testify to their souls. All prickly with crosses, all covered with inscriptions, all spaded up and shaken by countless daily burials, we are charged with the transmutation, the resurrection, the transfiguration of all things.

The poet Muriel Rukeyser likewise captures the spirit of Whitehead’s conception with her lines:

The Universe is made of stories,
not of atoms

for every object was once a subject and thus bears as immanent memory the history of the world. As seeing cannot see itself, but only what is seen, so each temporal subject is an omnidirectional eye that awakens to itself only in its prehension of other subjects, in which process the latter become objects, and so on in such an epistemic transaction, as warp and woof, et cetera, forever. “To be is to be a potential for every [subsequent] becoming,” Whitehead writes.

Originally published at The Lizard-press in December of 2017.

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