The Future Is...

Posted by | Chris | 29.12.10 | 4 Comments

Steven Shaviro's chapter in The Speculative Turn (“The Actual Volcano: Whitehead, Harman, and the Problem of Relations”) continues an ongoing argument aimed at the Object Oriented Ontologists. For Harman and OOO objects are withdrawn from all relations in their ultimate being. No relation or set of relations can ever exhaust an object since it is a substance above and beyond all of its encounters with other objects. In contrast there is a large, and sometimes disparate, group of philosophers who maintain that the ontological being of things inheres in their relations. Alfred North Whitehead is unquestionably one of these and is championed by Shaviro as holding the answers to a great many metaphysical problems.

I've got a great deal of respect for Shaviro's Whiteheadianism; Whitehead is perhaps my favourite philosopher and Shaviro's work has done a great deal to present and make clear the relevancy of Whitehead to contemporary debates. I love Shaviro's application of Whitehead to contemporary technological and cultural questions too. However, in the current debate I find I'm more keenly aware of Whitehead's shortcomings than of his sometimes daring, but always urbane, contributions to philosophy.

Graham Harman has often made clear his debt and appreciation to Whitehead, but equally he has been quick to point out the difficulties presented by Whitehead's ontology. Primary amongst these is Whitehead's relationism. For Harman any ontology defined entirely by its relations is unable to account for change. If any entity is defined by it's relations then it is exhaustively defined, there is nothing beyond its relations and hence nothing which might act as a motor for change in the entity.

I find it interesting that while Whitehead's realtionism is the main point of argument in Harman's reply, he makes no mention of 'decision' which holds a central place in Shaviro's Whiteheadian rebuttals to OOO. In Whitehead's philosophy decision is the final act whereby entities become what they are. It is the selection among alternatives which gives each entity its particular view on the world. Recently Shaviro has suggested that some variant of panpsychism might more usefully address problems in the sciences (as opposed to a focus on 'life') by considering mentality incipient in all things. This mentality Shaviro construes in terms of decision.

Perhaps the reason Harman does not address decision is that a criticism of it is implicit in his attack on Whitehead's relationism:
As [Whitehead] puts it early in Process and Reality: ‘The analysis of an actual entity into “prehensions” is that mode of analysis which exhibits the most concrete elements in the nature of actual entities’. In other words, to speak of actual entities in terms of anything but their prehensions is a mere abstraction; the entities themselves are concrescences, or systems of prehensions.(Response to Shaviro: 296).
The entities of Whitehead's ontology are nothing but their relations and there is not substance or power left over which could make any decision.

I fear that Harman may be right about this. There are further problems for Shaviro and Whitehead when one considers God's role in every actual entity's decision (the freedom of which is extremely questionable). And yet I'm not willing to concede an absolute victory to Harman in this case. Whitehead's metaphysics may not be riddled with difficulties (or possibly incoherent), but there is more in it than Harman's argument implies.

For one, I reject Whitehead's ontological principle as the measure of his metaphysics. This is contrary to Whitehead's explicit intentions, but it seems to me that Whitehead himself fails to maintain the principle. If the reason for any change is to be found in actual entities then the notion of an actual entity must be expanded to include the eternal objects. This brings me to my second objection: I strongly disagree with Harman's characterisation of 'eternal objects'.
[Whitehead] thinks that qualities pre-exist: he calls them ‘eternal’, after all, and links them with the Platonic forms. No new qualities can ever be produced for Whitehead, for all his reputation as a philosopher of novelty: what is produced in his view is simply new constellations of actual entities, prehended according to pre-existing eternal objects (Ibid: 298).
Whitehead certainly deserves some of the blame for this - I wish he'd called his potentials anything but 'eternal' - but Harman's linking them to Platonic forms (in a pejorative sense) needs some explanation. There's little question that Whitehead is a Platonist, but to suggest that his metaphysics conforms to two-worlds ontology of forms is to do a disservice both thinkers.

In Adventures of Ideas Whitehead explicates his metaphysics as a doctrine of immanent law by way of Plato's definition of being as power:
My suggestion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another even for a moment, however trifling the cause and however slight and momentary the effect, has real existence; and that the definition of being is simply power (Plato, Sophist, 247E).
A powers ontology is a long way from the traditional two-worlds ontology traditionally attributed to Plato. To similarly complicate Whitehead's ontology, would be to include eternal objects in the creative generation of the actual entities in the manner promised by Whitehead if not delivered.

To pull Whitehead in this direction is to make him something like a philosopher of the rumbling apeiron of thinkers like Grant (see below) and Harman is clear that he rejects interpreting Whitehead in this way:
You can say what you like about Whitehead […] being interested in process and history. But the real point for them is that all such process is produced by the work of individual entities—a claim that would merely be nonsense for Deleuze, Bergson, Simondon, DeLanda, and Grant (Response to Shaviro: 294).
Pushing Whitehead to his limits however, I have often wondered how far he extends his claim to the contingency of the laws of nature? Is the process of actual occasions also contingent? What power determines them? Might it be argued that actual entities are themselves the products of powers and therefore not the "individual entities" doing the work?

Having come this far from Whitehead's original intention however, it has to be asked if we're strictly Whiteheadians any more. Nor would any of this answer Harman's criticisms of Relationism. But I continue to find The Speculative Turn an exhilarating read suggestive of so many possibilities. I wish Shaviro all the best and I'm totally intrigued by OOO; I'm really excited to see where it goes.


4 Responses to “The Future Is...”

  1. peter
    2/1/11 11:16

    i'd like to hear more of your thoughts vis-a-vis eternal objects and whitehead in general - reminds me that i still havent got round to reading your dissertation - could you repost the link?

    I looked at a few things whitehead says about eternal objects in process and reality. and i can see why he calls potentials eternal in the sense that, for him, they are timeless whereas the actual entities are temporal and "arise by their participation in things which are eternal" (pg40 Process and Reality).

    this makes me think of a few things:
    1. the relationship here seems reminiscent of the third man argument. Having not read lots of whitehead does he account for this or have a solution?

    2. It also reminds me of Harman's point about productivity. if there is this relationship, which side is the productive element? i think you're right to put Whitehead in with Iain's side of this debate - although i guess he'd prefer "field of forces" to object. but this then undermines actual entities and makes them the mere shadows or puppets of eternal objects - and i'm not sure about that conclusion.
    Hence, perhaps, and this is a longshot, could whitehead be a good site for an amalgamation (or at least debate) for Harman vs Grant or objects vs powers?

  2. Chris
    2/1/11 14:13

    Along with the incredible feeling of freedom (both temporal and intellectual) that I've enjoyed over the last couple of weeks, I've also felt a regular twinge of frustration that I don't have any of my books with me. I'd love to be able to look again at P&R and see what I make of it in light of these recent debates.

    I think the Grant/Harman debate has struck a few people as a really important one in The ST. Something about each of their philosophical projects - the inclusiveness, the weirdness, the insistent questions posed - distinguish them both from even their SR peers. What is most exciting though is that each of them has identified a problem, which they regard as fundamental, and their solutions are incompatible. Harman champions objects and denounces the under- and overminers with his ontology of substances beyond all relation. Grant promotes an ontology of ungrounded powers as antecedent to any substance.

    I don't remember anything about the third man in Whitehead, although as I indicate there's some question as to whether powers/forms/eternal objects should be regarded as "third" at all. It's certainly a question which would need to be answered more fully than I can here.

    The other consequence of a powers ontology in Whitehead, which you rightly bring attention to, is that it does seem to undermine actual entities. To say, as you do that you're "not sure about that conclusion" suggests that you have some feeling for Harman's defence for the autonomy of objects. I would definitely agree with you, and that's yet another reason to be excited about this debate.

  3. peter
    5/1/11 11:20

    i am partial to Harman's arguments, but I'm also probably closer to siding with someone like James Ladyman and structural realism, which is probably the antichrist as far as OOO is concerned. For the record I'm undecided or agnostic, but I'm really enjoying the debate.

    Also, I think Galen Strawson's distinction between structural and non-structural features could potentially be a bridge between the these two opposite positions. But this is just an observation so far, I haven't really thought it out

  4. Chris
    7/1/11 09:52

    Harmam's talk "I also believe that materialism must be destroyed" addresses Ladyman's work (with Ross) directly.

    Audio here:

    Text here:

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