Fragments: Reality, according to the great A. N. Whitehead

Apologies for the jargon, but there is really no way to avoid it in a consideration of A. N. Whitehead’s philosophy

A. N. Whitehead begins the first chapter of his most famous workwith the following stipulation, which is to chart the course of his entire philosophical adventure: “Speculative Philosophy is the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” If this initially appears to be an unassuming task, then one has failed to grasp Whitehead’s meaning. Whitehead’s opening to Process & Reality represents a no-less ambitious undertaking than to formulate a theory of everything. One must indeed admire Whitehead’s aspiration irrespective of one’s estimation of his success.

There is really no end to the commentary that Whitehead’s enterprise could generate, since the considerations relevant to a comprehensive philosophy are coextensive with the considerations relevant to the world itself. In essence, however, Whitehead’s endeavour is quite straightforward. Everything (i.e. every event, or “society of actual occasions,” to invoke the precise phrase in abstruse Whiteheadian jargon) is some-thing (i.e. again, “thing” should be conceived as a verb and not a as a substantive), and it appears in some way. In other words, everything has a what and every what has an how. The former represents the ideal aspect of the world insofar as no particular entity is given to mere sense-impression. Instead, any bundle of sense-impressions always requires the fructification by a concept if it is to take root and germinate in the ground of reality. This necessary conceptual activity is analytic and also synthetic in that it both identifies, or carves out, a given entity from “the blooming, buzzing confusion” of raw sensation, and it also integrates the given entity into the universal lógos. Thus, the what of experience corresponds to Whitehead’s stated intention to develop a “coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas,” and it also exemplifies a rationalist approach to philosophical consideration.

The how of experience—which corresponds to the empirical approach to philosophical consideration, and which Whitehead acknowledges with his express intention to account for “every element of our experience,”—complements the what, and even completes it. A bona fide empiricism, which is to say, a faithful eye to the how of one’s experience, both ensures that no aspects of experience is left out of one’s speculative survey, and it furthermore tethers one’s flights of abstraction in the “philosophic aeroplane” (to use Whitehead’s awkward metaphor) to the concrete runway reality.

Importantly, to differentiate the what and the how of a given entity is by no means a capitulation to metaphysical dualism. That which appears and the manner in which it appears are not two different things, though they are not exactly the same either. Rather they are two aspects of one reality, which Whitehead attempts to fathom in his “Speculative Philosophy.” Indeed, as is so often the case with Whitehead, Truth is on his side, and his only real enemy is his own insistence on an absurdly opaque style of expression.

How can we understand A. N. Whitehead’s notion of perception, which he terms “prehension”?

Perception is often conceived of as a subjective representation of a world of objects. This picture, however, is unsuitable for Whitehead’s philosophy. Instead we must conceive of an unbounded infinity of perennially-prehending subjects. These sensitive societies of actual occasions constitute a limitless fleet of subjects traversing the open sea of forever-passing time*. Each actual occasion appears as particle only in a virtual present before, in the flashing instant of actuality, it mingles with the waves which are the wakes of all of its infinite counterparts. Thus we must cite the final words of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus:

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

As seeing cannot see itself, but only what is seen, so each subject is a prehensile eye that awakens to itself only in its prehension of other subjects, in which process they become objects, and so on, et cetera, forever.

*Time does not pass; rather it is itself the passage. Likewise space does not contain object but is instead the tissue of relation between them.


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