Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

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Matter, Consciousness, and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

David Ray Griffin

II. Overcoming Misplaced Concreteness with Regard to Both Matter and Mind


F. Information about Nature Derived from Direct Prehension of Our Bodies


The recognition that our bodily members are not simply located objects can be based not simply on inference, as above, but also on our experience of being causally influenced by them in our physical experience.  To provide the basis for this argument, we can begin with the relation between my present experience and previous occasions of my own experience.  In illustrating physical prehension (nonsensory perception of other actualities), Whitehead, in an argument against the Humean view that our experiences are completely separable one from the other, uses the example of a speaker saying “United States.”  

When the third syllable is reached, probably the first is in the immediate past; and certainly during the word ‘States’ the first syllable of the phrase lies beyond the immediacy of the present. . . . As mere sensuous perception, Hume is right in saying that the sound ‘United’ as a mere sensum has nothing in its nature referent to the sound ‘States’, yet the speaker is carried from ‘United’ to ‘States’, and the two conjointly live in the present, by the energizing of the past occasion as it claims its self-identical existence as a living issue in the present.  The immediate past as surviving to be again lived through in the present is the primary instance of non-sensuous perception.  (AI, 182)

The point here is that our own experience certainly does not have the property of simple location.  The present moment is essentially constituted by its prehension of the previous moment.  And that previous moment has (at least) a twofold existence: It existed in the past, and yet it is here in the present occasion.  One might argue that this example provides no example of one actuality’s being present in another, because our mind as enduring through time is a single entity.  Whitehead’s response:

[The former experience] is gone, and yet it is here.  It is our indubitable self, the foundation of our present existence.  Yet the present occasion while claiming self-identity, while sharing the very nature of the bygone occasion in all its living activities, nevertheless is engaged in modifying it, in adjusting it to other influences, in completing it with other values, in adjusting it to other purposes.  The present moment is constituted by the influx of the other into that self-identity.  (AI, 181)

In other words, although in one sense my present experience and that earlier experience are parts of one (enduring) individual, the unity over time is not that of an individual in the strictest sense, because the present occasion incorporates not only that prior experience but also many other influences.  One of those influences, for example, might lead the speaker to reject the earlier occasion’s intention to follow “United” with “States of America” by saying instead “States of Europe.”  With such different purposes, we could hardly say that the two or more experiences constituted a single individual in the strictest sense.  This example, accordingly, presents an instance of our direct awareness of former actualities existing and energizing in a present actuality, thereby showing that simple location does not, at least, characterize all actualities.  And it provides a model for inferring that the same is true for our bodily members.  

Whitehead argues, in a passage partly quoted earlier, that our sense of identity-with-difference in relation to the body is similar:

Our dominant inheritance from our immediately past occasion is broken into by innumerable inheritances through other avenues.  Sensitive nerves, the functionings of our viscera, disturbances in the composition of our blood, break in upon the dominant line of inheritance.  In this way, emotions, hopes, fears, inhibitions, sense-perceptions arise, which physiologists confidently ascribe to the bodily functioning.  So intimately obvious is this bodily inheritance that common speech does not discriminate the human body from the human person.  Soul and body are fused together. . . . But the human body is indubitably a complex of occasions which are part of spatial nature.  It is a set of occasions miraculously coordinated so as to pour its inheritance into various regions within the brain.  There is thus every reason to believe that our sense of unity with the body has the same original as our sense of unity with our immediate past of personal experience.  It is another case of nonsensuous perception.  (AI, 189)

This unity with our body, however, is no more strict identity than is our unity with our own past experience.  Rather: “The body is that portion of nature with which each moment of human experience intimately cooperates.  There is an inflow and outflow of factors between the bodily actuality and the human experience, so that each shares in the existence of the other” (MT, 115).  In other words, because there is mutual efficient causation between the body and our experience, they cannot be understood as strictly (numerically) identical.  The body is in this sense composed of others —that is, of entities that are distinct from our experience or mind as such: “Actuality is the self-enjoyment of importance. But this self-enjoyment has the character of the self-enjoyment of others melting into the enjoyment of the one self” (MT, 117f.)  Precisely because self and body are not one in the strictest sense, the intimate relationship between them provides us with direct observational evidence against the idea that “spatial nature” is purely spatial, being capable of only external relations.  My bodily experiences are internally related to my experience, being partly constitutive of what it is.  The activities constituting my body must therefore have a twofold existence: an existence in themselves (which is perhaps an existence for themselves) and then another kind of existence in my experience.  

Furthermore, once we have fully accepted the idea that our own experience is fully natural, therefore an (especially high-grade) example of natural events generally, we can generalize, saying that this twofold mode of existence must be true of the interactions within the body generally.  Furthermore, realizing that the body is simply one more part of nature, we can generalize even further, saying that this twofold mode of existence must apply universally.  Just as my present experience prehends previous experiences of mine and bodily events into itself and then is in turn taken up by later experiences, all events in nature must prehend past events into themselves and then get prehended into later events.  Simple location, in other words, must not characterize any of the units comprising the universe.  All unitary events must include the past in themselves and then get included in future events.  This generalization suggests the correlative one, that all unitary events must have an inside with a duration (even if less than a billionth of a second in the most primitive types of events).  And this generalization suggests the final one: All unitary events must have experience (however trivial).  

The inference that at least bodily cells have experience is supported by our direct experience of the body.  The main point is contained in the statement quoted two paragraphs above, that our direct experience includes “the self-enjoyment of others melting into the enjoyment of the one self” (MT, 117f.)  Whitehead seems to be saying that we directly experience the fact that the body has its own experiences.  That indeed is his claim.  “Among our fundamental experiences,” he says, is the “direct feeling of the derivation of emotion from the body” (MT, 159f.)  This is our primal relationship to our body:

The primitive form of physical experience is emotional—blind emotion—received as felt elsewhere in another occasion and conformally appropriated as a subjective passion.  In the language appropriate to the higher stages of experience, the primitive element is sympathy, that is, feeling the feeling in another and feeling conformally with another.  (PR, 162)

This primal experience can also be discussed in terms of experiences of worth and value:

At the base of our existence is the sense of “worth.”  Now worth essentially presupposes that which is worthy.  Here the notion of worth is . . . to be construed in . . . the sense of existence for its own sake. . . . [O]ur experience is a value experience, expressing a vague sense of maintenance or discard; and . . . this value experience differentiates itself in the sense of many existences with value experiences . . . and the egoistic value experience. (MT, 110)

It should be stressed here that Whitehead is engaged in phenomenology, trying to state what is directly given to experience.  But his analysis of the given is radically different from that of Edmund Husserl, who spoke of “essences”—which for Whitehead are abstract products of construction and simplification.  Husserl’s essences are the objects of perception in the mode of presentational immediacy.  What is really given to our primordial mode of perception, according to Whitehead’s phenomenological analysis, are other actualities, rather than abstract essences, and these as laden with their own feelings.  The contrast is brought out by Hartshorne, who had read Wordsworth and then studied with Husserl before coming under Whitehead’s influence.  In commenting on the fact that both he and Whitehead had independently been influenced by Wordsworth, Hartshorne says,

[Wordsworth] was describing nature so far as given to our direct intuitions. . . . The ‘ocean of feelings’ that Whitehead ascribes to physical reality is not only thought; so far as our bodies are made of this reality, it is intuited. What is not intuited but only thought is nature as consisting of absolutely insentient stuff or process. No such nature is directly given to us. . . . Wordsworth was doing a phenomenology of direct experience far better than Husserl ever did. . . . Wordsworth seems to have influenced Whitehead much as he did me.  He saved us from materialism and even dualism.  Both result from an inadequate phenomenology and now an antiquated physics.[3]

Saying that his own “chief quarrel with Husserl . . . was over his [Husserl’s] dualism of sensation and feeling,” Hartshorne adds that after Whitehead heard Hartshorne’s talk on Husserl for the philosophy department at Harvard in 1925, he “expressed surprise concerning Husserl’s stress on essences. . . . Clearly, he felt as I did that Husserl never understood the fully concrete phenomena.” [4]

In any case, from Whitehead’s analysis of one’s direct experience as arising from one’s body (along, of course, with the other considerations mentioned earlier), he concludes that “the body is composed of various centres of experience imposing the expression of themselves on each other. . . . [T]he animal body is composed of entities, which are mutually expressing and feeling” (MT, 23).

Having reached this conclusion, he then applies his double-edged axiom that just as “a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe,” so “other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body” (PR, 119).  We must assume, by the principle of continuity, that the same kinds of causal interactions that occur within the body occur without, especially in light of the twofold fact that the body interacts with the rest of the universe and that we cannot precisely say where the body begins and “external nature” ends (AI, 189; MT, 21, 161).  We must conclude, accordingly, that the universe in general is comprised of actualities that experientially prehend prior actualities, thereby including aspects of those former actualities within themselves and doing so with subjective form.  

To summarize: Whitehead’s overall thesis on this issue is that the notion of mere bits of matter understood as vacuous actualities with simple location is not supported by any truly concrete, direct observations of nature but results instead from misinterpreting the status of high abstractions.  I have distinguished six points within this overall argument.  The first is that our own experience, taken as an instance of a natural fact, suggests that the units of nature are characterized by prehensive experience.  The second and third points support the generalizability of our experience to other individuals by arguing that both consciousness and sensory perception should be regarded as derivative, not foundational, aspects of human experience.  The fourth point argues that the materialistic idea of matter is rooted in an aspect of conscious sensory perception that spatializes the data received from the body while stripping it of most of its emotional nature.  The fifth point is that the information that we do receive from sense perception can be most naturally interpreted as implying that our bodily activities are, analogously to our own experience, activities of feeling (prehending) other things with emotional form.  The sixth point argues that in our primal communion with our body we directly experience it as composed of centers of feeling.  In all of these ways, Whitehead argues that our most concrete observations, far from suggesting a materialistic view of the body and thereby the world beyond, suggest just the opposite.



3. Charles Hartshorne, “Some Causes of My Intellectual Growth,” PCH, 13.

4. Ibid., 23, 24.

 Posted August 31, 2007


III. From Inner Physics to Human Psychology: Subjective Universals


Abbreviations of Works Cited

·          AI Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas

·          SMW Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

·          MBS John R. Searle, Minds, Brains and Science: The 1984 Reith Lectures

·          MR Galen Strawson, Mental Reality

·          MT Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought

·          PCH Lewis Edwin Hahn, ed., The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne: Library of Living Philosophers XX

·          PR Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology

·          VN Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere



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