Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.




Essays by Me

Essays by Others

A review of Judith A. Jones, Intensity: An Essay in Whiteheadian Ontology, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998. 264 pages.  Transactions of The Charles S. Peirce Society 34:3, Summer 1998, 789-795.


". . . one of the most profound studies of Whitehead’s philosophy to appear in many years."

Lewis S. Ford

This is one of the most profound studies of Whitehead’s philosophy to appear in many years.  It owes much of its importance to her efforts to combat a prevalent interpretation which accords ontological primacy to concrescence, the process of coming into being, relegating the resultant being to a derivative status.  Thus “the typical reading of the subjective immediacy of actual entities as being the sole locus of ultimate ontological status turns Whitehead’s scheme into one in which an actual, objective world must be derived in some subsidiary way from the experience of subjects” (p. 109).  Jones seeks to redress the imbalance she perceives, for to her both concres­cence and being are equally actual. 

Her study focuses on “intensity” since this is equally a fea­ture of the concrescent experience as a property of the being achieved.   Intensity, like novelty, is a difficult term to pin down.  We know what it is, but not how to delimit it.  Metaphysically generalized, it embraces evolutionary stages already achieved, such as locomotion and nutrition (p. 143), but there may be stages still to be achieved.  Types of intensity may be compared, but there is always more.  There is always the striving for greater intensity which cannot limited by our descriptions of lesser intensities.  Perhaps it can be understood in terms of contrasts, which for Whitehead are integrations of other feelings.  There can be contrasts of contrasts, ever more complex.  The complexity and richness of contrasts is a measure of intensity.

The other interpretation which gives primacy to concrescence seeks to affirm Whitehead’s ideal of only one genus of actual entities (PR 110).  It also assumes that the meaning of actuality should be univocal.  Faced with a choice between the activity of becoming and the determinateness of being, it opts for the former.  If so, only an acting entity can be fully actual.  Past actual occasions, though so called, are really no longer actual.   But Whitehead’s ideal is not for one genus of entities which are actual in any one sense of the term, but for actual entities which take time to be fully actual, which might be actual in one sense as present, and in another as past.

The problem with according primary existence only to concrescence is that it may undercut the concreteness of the past.  For that which is ontologically derivative is also taken to be abstract.  The abstract takes on the features of the forms or eternal objects.  Past actuality then acquires the status accorded to such forms.  The corrective accords equal status to both concrescence and being.  Both are equally actual, or perhaps both are abstractions from the fully concrete and double-sided actual entity.

If either concrescent becoming or being were ontologically derivative, then being would be abstracted from becoming. Becoming is the novel feature in Whitehead’s philosophy, and his writing shows a dominant preoccupation with it to the neglect of being.  If Process and Reality were a careful presentation of a philosophical position that had been fully thought through, we might have expected a more balanced account of the two aspects of an actual entity, its coming into being, and its resultant being.  But the book is more an account of the problems and issues that Whitehead was wrestling with, and these primarily concerned concrescence.  Part II shows the struggle he had, and Part III presents, more systematically, the theory he finally came to.  On the other hand, his theory of being had already been largely worked out.  His beings, that which come into being by way of concrescence, are individual events.  The nature of events had already been analyzed in the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and The Concept of Nature (1920).  All that is needed is to show how the theory of concrescence and the theory of being were correlated.  Whitehead’s interest in pursuing new problems seem to have led him to postpone writing up that chapter on “Coordinate Division” (PR 283-93) to the last.

In any case, her emphasis upon the actuality of what has become for subsequent occasions is a welcome corrective.  It is difficult to disentangle any substantive revision from rhetorical redescription.  In many cases this is just what is needed: a fresh restatement of the facts of the case.  Even if it is only rhetorical, still it is new and provocative.  It directs our atten­tion to important issues.  It ferrets out little noticed aspects of Whitehead’s endeavour.

Her approach shows how much of Jorge Nobo’s interpreta­tion of tran­sitional and causal objectification can be retrieved from the perspective of what I call the “standard interpreta­tion”.  The “standard interpretation,” inaugurated by Christian and Leclerc, takes part III of Process and Reality as the center of interpretation, often neglecting other parts.  Nobo, in Whitehead’s Metaphysics of Extension and Solidarity (SUNY, 1986), uses part II (in particular part II, chapter 10) as his center of interpretation, in terms of which he attempts to interpret the rest.  I contend that Whitehead has two different and somewhat incompatible theories in parts II and III, and that in devising the final theory of concrescence he left much of part II behind.

Central to Nobo’s endeavour is the theory of two distinct processes, transition and concrescence (part II).  Jones admits that there are texts supporting this interpretation:  “it appears at times from Whitehead’s discussions as if transition were a ‘transitional process’ . . . between concrescences” (p. 111), but in reality things are different.   The connection between the past and the present can be explained in terms of physical prehension, making any separate “transitional process” unnecessary (part III).

Thus we may view Intensity as an endeavour, from the perspective of the standard interpretation, to redress its over-emphasis upon the subjective elements of the theory of concrescence, by using as many elements from part II as are consistent with this interpretive perspective.

She is not embarrassed by the notion of “atomism,” yet atomism with respect to time seems never to be examined.  Instead there seems to be a very provocative connection between atomism and individuality.  Both terms originally refer to that which is indivisible.  Individuality, however, has lost much of its etymological origin.  Since Descartes it has meant that which is independent of others.  This is ill-suited, even in an attenuated way, for Whitehead’s occasions; they are related by prehension to all others.  In his context each occasion is individual as a unique concrete unity of all of its relations.  This concrete unity cannot be divided without the destruction of the actuality itself.  There may be considerable perspectival elimination, as in the prehension of distantly past occasions, but as long as the concrete unity is preserved, the actuality and not some abstract replica is being prehended. 

Whitehead does not refer to the indivisibility of the concrete prehensive unity.  He only refers to the indivisibility of the act of becoming of an occasion (PR 69).  Yet this is only the counterpart in prehensive unification to the concrete unity in being.  The two go hand in hand.

In affirming the full actuality of superjective being, Jones often mini­mizes the distinctions Whitehead uses to make his point that both sub­ject and superject are fully actual.  She claims that he distorts his own position by using terms drawn from the philosophies he’s opposing, such as efficient and final causation, or subject and object.  This may be true of efficient and final insofar as they refer to external or internal causa­tion, for the lines of this division get blurred by the introduc­tion of physi­cal prehension.  In general, unless Whitehead were to gives new meaning to old terms, he must invent new ones even more than he does.

This particularly true for “subject” and “object,” which be­come temporal terms for “present becoming” and “past being”.  Her resistance to this du­ality of basic terms leads her to ques­tion the basic metaphor by which Whitehead relates this two notions:  “Whitehead’s strong doctrine of subjective perishing needlessly introduces an ontological distinction be­tween tem­poral states of an actuality, when the difference between ‘sub­jectivity’ and ‘objectification’ could just as easily have been cashed out in terms of the degree of presence of a certain unity of intensive contrasts” (p. 208).  A satisfaction is just such a unity of contrasts, which can be said to be subjective when inherent in the occasion itself and objective in other occasions.  But is this all that Whitehead intends by these terms?

Just what perishes?  She is protesting against the view that some­thing of the full actuality perishes, such that what re­mains is partially abstract, only secondarily real.  But if the resultant being is fully con­crete, the perishing can only refer to some feature of how things come to be.  Concrescence is the process of unifying the prehensive relations of an occasion into a final unity.  Subjectivity is the unifying, which to be unifying must result in some unity, but that unity is not the subject.

Rather the subjective immediacy of the occasion, this activ­ity of uni­fying, must cease with the attainment of that unity, for then there is nothing further to unify.  Concrete unity, the occasion as objective, pre­supposes both such unifying and the completion of the unification.  This shift from subjectivity to objectivity is also the shift from present to past.

Nothing actual has been lost, if we understand by the actu­ality of an occasion both its concrescence and objective being.  It is so easy to lose sight of the extent to which Whitehead pushes his objection to activity at an instant.  It means, con­trast to substance philosophy, that the actual­ity of a thing cannot be adequately expressed at an instant.  It takes time to be actual, and that time embraces both its becoming and its being.  Jones challenges the view which defines actuality in terms of some in­stant of its concrescence, but her “harmony of contrastive incorporation” (p. 209) defines actuality in terms of the instant of its satisfaction.  This is her sense of ecstatic in­dividuality, for it can be the same for the occasion itself and for successor occasions.  It centers on intensity.  “Inten­sity is both what makes an entity unique, a form of individual value-achievement, and what makes it a genuine contribution to the be­coming of other subjects” (p. 209).

Because Whitehead’s sharp distinction between subject and object re­cedes into the background, she sometimes uses ‘sub­ject’ as synonymous with ‘occasion’.  For example, “an individ­ual is that subject wherever its contrasts are embodied” (p. 128).  The subject may be actual wherever prehended, as re­alism requires, but it is only concrescent in its own pre­sent subjectivity.  As such it is unrepeatable.  Her formulations mis­leadingly suggest that the unrepeatable is somehow re­peated.

The first three chapters lay out the general metaphysics of intensity, the second by means of a commentary on the categoreal obligations.  The fourth chapter concentrates the discussion upon conscious intellectual experience, including the role of symbolic reference.  The final chapter sketches “An Essay on the Morality of Attention.”  This essay is quick to dis­claim that it can present anything like a Whiteheadian ethic.  That may not really be possible, at least within the scope of the metaphysics of Process and Reality.  Whitehead is con­cerned with metaphysically necessary principles of the widest scope, and has little to say about the contingencies of human­kind and the human situation.  Ethics (and po­litical philosophy) cannot get started without some assumptions about these contingencies.

Apart from these caveats, however, a lot can be accomplished.  She points to Whitehead’s value realism.  She sees the subjectivist “as inau­thentically denying the ecstatic pres­ence of other subjects in him or her, and his or her ecstatic presence in the agency ... of other beings” (p. 191).  She pro­tests against final causation seen as pure private, and effi­cient causation as devoid of value.  For the value is not simply in the subjective experience, but in the occasion as prehended by others.

The emphasis on the full actuality of the superject as well as subject locates moral responsibility.  According to the cate­gory of subjective in­tensity, the occasion aims at “intensity of feeling (a) in the immediate subject and (b) in the relevant fu­ture” (PR 27).  Acting in anticipation of the relevant future is acting responsibly.  Thus “responsibility is internal to the act of self-constitution.  Responsibility is not optional” (p. 173).

Thus value issues which are wider than human concerns alone can be addressed, such as moral improvement, or moral attention, drawn from the work of Iris Murdoch.  She shows very effectively the way in which these two thinkers comple­ment each other.

The role of value within a Whiteheadian context raises the question of subjective aim, the dominant value shaping a con­crescence, and its ori­gin in God.  She a makes a very circum­spect appeal to God:  “Subjective aim might be derivable from the general nature of the universe itself, without recourse to a primordial actual entity [God], though how this is to be done without stretching the ontological principle to the point of unintelligibility is unclear to me” (P. 127)  But a minimal inter­pretation of this primordial functioning “does not have to be given the name ‘God’ ex­cept in so far as we address ourselves to issues broader than the condi­tions governing the coming to be of events” (PR 147)  She provides a so­ber and nuanced ac­count of God’s “secular” functions as required for a process metaphysics, leaving God’s more religious functions to one side.

The concept of God introduces an interpretive note.  She is also quite sensitive to the wider contrast between strict con­ceptual argument and poetic interpretation.  The chapters are prefaced by poetry from Hadas, Auden, Blake, Yeats, Heaney, and Bishop.  These poems are not external ornamental embel­lishments, but provocative introductions to their re­spective chapters, which are further illuminated by Jones’ interpretive comments.  This blending of poetry and philosophy is a wel­come surprise.  There is plenty in Intensity to reward the diligent reader, but without the poetry we would be the poorer.


Posted February 14, 2007

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