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From The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. XLVIII, No. 1, Issue No. 189, September 1983, 3-17.


Some Reflections on Sartre’s Nothingness and Whitehead’s Perishing

Donald W. Sherburne

Three philosophers do justice to man as a part of nature: Aristotle, Hegel, and Whitehead.--Paul Weiss

Paul Weiss’s observation points directly and succinctly to the very heart of the metaphysical enterprise as I understand it, which is to develop categories that do justice to the rich, multifarious structures and experiences that constitute human nature but which are so articulated that the human nature so described is clearly embedded in, and is a part of, the wider nature that constitutes the subject matter of the physical sciences.  Looking back at a few of the giants in the philosophical tradition, there are some, like Hobbes and Democritus, who focus very hard on that wider nature, but I worry that they have not really done justice to human nature in their philosophizing.  Other insightful thinkers like Sartre and Heidegger worry me because they turn their backs on science and that wider nature in order to focus, and focus brilliantly, upon the structures of human consciousness.  Given this perspective on things, I am inclined to view the investiga-tions of continental thinkers such as Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Heidegger as extremely valuable, but as nevertheless lacking the grounding in a conceptuality that coherently weds their insights to an understanding of that wider nature.  To the extent that they lack this grounding I see them as flawed.  Whitehead has a conceptuality that has taken that wider nature, and the scientific study of it, very seriously; the insights at the heart of the scientific developments earlier in this century are a major source of inspiration for White-head’s metaphysical categories.  Whitehead does have a lot to say about human nature in his works, and I would not want to understate his insights in this dimension one bit.  But he does not have quite the dramatic literary style nor the psychological focus of a Heidegger or a Sartre.  At the level of the investigation into the structures of human nature, much has been accomplished in the sixty-five years since Whitehead wrote his magnum opus.  From these considerations I conclude that if we look at Whitehead and the more dramatic continental thinkers together we will profit in two ways: (1) we will become aware of the disturbing gap in continental thinkers between, on the one hand, their insightful accounts of human nature, and, on the other, what we know about that wider nature of which human beings are a part; and (2) we will see many ways that insights from the continent can enrich that Whiteheadian account of human being that stands so deftly anchored in a conceptuality at home with what we know about that wider nature.

One final introductory thought.  A great deal of the work that has been done from within the perspective of Whitehead’s process metaphy-sics has been done with the very specific aim of showing how process thought is capable of grounding a modern reinterpretation of the notion of deity, a notion of deity that rests more easily amidst the concepts that engage the modern world than do the more traditional notions of deity.  Some of the people I respect most highly in this world are deeply involved in this theistic project, but that project is not, as is quite widely known, my project.  I worry that the great attention paid to Whitehead’s theistic readjustments has obscured Whitehead’s rich availability when attention is turned toward more particularly philosophical issues.  If the analyses and suggestions which follow prove to be plausible, perhaps they will encourage more research into ways that Whitehead’s categories might be profitably directed upon issues and traditions out there in the wider philosophical world.  But now I turn to reflections upon White-head, Sartre, and such notions as indeterminism and personhood.

Whitehead, Sartre, and James are all very special for me because of their uncompromising commitment to indeterminism, to the idea, as James would put it, that actuality floats in a wider sea of potentiality.  In the works of each of these thinkers one finds a robust, uncompro-mising, strong form of indeterminism.  It is my project here to show that if we think Sartre and Whitehead together we can emerge with a clearer grasp of certain possibilities for defending indeterminism, with a clearer grasp of how it is possible that our immediate experience of choosing among real possibilities, all equally real but not all destined to become actualities, can be defended as not at all illusory, as not at all requiring that it be explained away.  It is to the nothingness of Sartre that I turn first.  I am certainly aware of Sartre’s many critics.  It may be true, as some scholars argue, that history will relegate Sartre to the status of a rather insignificant footnote to Heidegger, though I rather hope history turns out to be somewhat kinder than that.  It is quite clear that history already looks very much askance at Sartre’s blindness when it became a question of the acceptability of the more unsavory deeds performed by governments ostensibly guided by Marxism.  Certainly there is reason, observation, and experience on the side of those critics of Sartre, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who deplore the absoluteness of Sartre’s notion of freedom with its failure to recognize the importance and power of social connectedness.  With all this said, it is still my conviction that Sartre’s notion of nothingness, or something that will serve as an analogue to that notion, is essential to an adequate account of how it can be that there is a conceptual space within which our subjective experience of choosing can be understood as presupposing a genuine indeterminism.

Early in Being and Nothingness, Sartre leads us to the acknowledgement that “negation is an abrupt break in continuity,”1 an insight critical to the aspect of nothingness which I will emphasize.  He goes on to stress that “if being is everywhere,” then both negation and nothingness are “inconceivable” (BN, 43).  If reality is exhausted by being, with its “infinite density” (BN, 120), then the iron law of causal necessity reigns supreme. Sartre argues that if questioning is to be possible as a human conduct, it is imperative “that the questioner have the permanent possibility of dissociating himself from the causal series which constitutes being and which can produce only being” (BN, 58).  Moreover, it is not just questioning which presupposes this permanent possibility of a dissociation from the causal series, but the very freedom which Sartre identifies with nothing-ness and consciousness.  As Sartre says, “The in-itself is full of itself, and no more total plenitude can be imagined” (BN, 120), but “consciousness, on the other hand, is . . . a decompression of being” (BN, 121).  Being under compression, being infinitely dense, is being bound to the rigid inflexibility of causal connectedness; it is being which, if it were to exhaust reality, would completely vitiate James’s vision of a universe with elbow-room.  In contrast, being which is decompressed, which questions and is a nothingness, “is a perpetual separation of effect from cause, since every nihilating process must derive its source only from itself. . . . Every psychic process of nihilation implies then a cleavage between the immediate psychic past and the present.  This cleavage is precisely nothingness” (BN, 63).  The nothingness of Sartre is a cleavage, it is a disruption of that fullness of being which, if not decompressed, bears, supports, and mandates a rigidly deterministic causal series.  The key point I will take forward from Sartre is this point about a cleavage in being, the point that such a cleavage in being is a perpetual separation of effect from cause.

The difficulties associated with this notion of cleavage, of separation of cause from effect, are beautifully highlighted if we look for a moment at a classic example from the pen of Paul Edwards.  It is in his introduction to the section on “Determinism, Freedom, and Moral Responsibility” in A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, that Edwards uses a discussion of the weather to focus, but from the other side, on just the idea I have been extracting from Sartre’s analysis.  Edwards begins by noting that weather forecasts for the following day are very reliable in Melbourne, Australia, but very chancy in New York.  He then writes:

Supposing someone came along and said, “There is an easy explanation for the successes of the Australian and the lack of successes of the New York weather forecasts.  In Melbourne the weather is caused—there it is the outcome of preceding conditions; but in New York, more often than not, the weather has no cause.  It is ‘cut off from,’ it is ‘disconnected with’ what happened before.”  We would assuredly question the sanity of this man.  For we all believe that the failures of the New York meteorologists are to be explained quite differently.2

Edwards goes on to suggest that we would all agree that the predictive failures in New York occur because the factors which have to be taken into account in New York are much more complex and are much more difficult to observe than the corresponding factors in Australia.  He then makes his key point: human behavior is to be treated just like the New York weather—no disconnection, no cutting off, just greater complexity and greater difficulty of observation.

To disconnect or not to disconnect, to cut off or not to cut off—this is a major watershed.  Sartre cuts off, Sartre disconnects with a vengeance, and in the mind of Edwards Sartre pays a price in doing this, for it well could have been Sartre whom Edwards had in mind when he penned the sentence, “We would assuredly question the sanity of this man.”  From the point of view of much contemporary philosophy Sartre lacks credibility on this issue, and yet I am convinced that the insight generated by Sartre’s notion of nothingness is valid and desperately needs to be preserved.

It is at this point that I turn to Whitehead, for Whitehead’s notion of perishing, and the concepts which cluster around it, provide for disconnection, for cutting off, and yet at the same time allow for connectedness, for relatedness, and for the kind of predictive regularity required by science in those areas where science requires predictive regularity.  I am convinced that Whitehead’s process metaphysics enables us to do justice to the fundamental insights and commitments of both Edwards and Sartre, which is not far from suggesting, in the words of Paul Weiss, that Whitehead can indeed find a way to “do justice to man as a part of nature.”  It would not be fair or accurate for me to claim that Whitehead has greater insight into the structures of human consciousness than Sartre; quite to the contrary, Sartre is the introspective genius. But Whitehead is this century’s metaphysician par excellence and it is this talent which enables him to provide the conceptuality in terms of which we can restate, elaborate, and ground in a system the extremely valuable insights of Sartre, and yet do so in such a way that the insights and plausible intuitions of a Paul Edwards are respected.

Whitehead’s actual entities are bursts, or, ŕ la James, buds of prehensive unification.  They are of short duration, epochal, but they are not anorectically skinny, can’t-see-them-if-they-turn-sideways skinny, like the “nows” of the language of traditional science.  Actual entities are pleasingly plump, and that is very important to note.  It is, however, equally important to note that, as Whitehead says over and over, an actual entity’s becoming is also its perishing.  When an actual entity wraps up its becoming in the prehensive unification which is its satisfaction, it is over, done, gone, dead, perished.  “Time,” Whitehead says, echoing Plato, “has stood still—if only it could.”3  William Ernest Hocking attended some of Whitehead’s seminars and did some team teaching with him; he quotes Whitehead as having said:  “You can’t catch a moment by the scruff of the neck—it’s gone, you know.”4  Charles Michael Johnson, tongue-in-cheek, puts the matter very succinctly: “Actual entities, unlike melancholy human beings, do not linger after the party is over; they are their parties, and when the party is over, so are they.”5

Whitehead’s perishing, like Sartre’s nothingness, constitutes a discontinuity, a cleavage, a disruption, a cutting off, and both of these thinkers must preserve and protect discontinuity in their categorial schemes in order to provide the conceptual space within which their respective commitments to our felt experience of choice and responsibility can be accommodated.  But what about continuity?  What about our deep sense of continuing personhood?  Are cleavage and continuity mutually exclusive, or are there modes of continuity that are interestingly compatible with certain modes of disruption?  Do the disruption-grounded indeterminism of Jean Paul Sartre and the continuity-grounded determinism of Paul Edwards really exhaust the options?  I think not.

In pursuit of the Whiteheadian form of compatibalism as concerns the opposition between disruption and continuity, I will look at two of the most famous of the many intriguing examples which Sartre uses in Being and Nothingness to stress the centrality of discontinuity, the example of vertigo, and the example of the reformed gambler who must pass the casino every time he goes to work.  The vertigo example I like; it does a wonderful job of putting us face-to-face with discontinuity.  I am just nervous enough in the presence of heights to resonate with Sartre’s account of vertigo.  I do not myself feel an overwhelming impulse to jump, as some people apparently do, but the possibility of jumping, the vivid sense of nothing in the way, the unnerving sense of being out over 70,000 fathoms, to use Kierkegaard’s expression in this context, is something I have most assuredly experienced and something which seems to me to be accurately placed by Sartre’s analysis.

When I turn to the case of the reformed gambler, however, I am not quite so happy with Sartre’s analysis.  Why, on his own terms, should Sartre want to stress so heavily the claim that the man must give up gambling again and again, must give up gambling each time he passes the casino?  Why, if we are really as cleanly and completely disengaged from the past as Sartre wants to hold, should the man have any more predilection for the gambling table than for stopping at the soda fountain across the street?  The vertigo example is brilliant for the purposes Sartre has in mind, for it generates a context in which all orientation toward the past is removed from the scene by the very terms of the thought experiment itself.  In the reformed gambler case it is indeed true that Sartre is making the point that his assumption of the primacy of disruption has the implication that a decision made at one moment has no binding power over the way that choices are made at a subsequent moment—we must choose again, and again, and again.  Fine.  But what assumption lurks underneath the argument and the example?  Precisely the assumption that the reformed gambler is tempted, that the reformed gambler does not just simply choose or not choose as is the case in the vertigo example, but that the reformed gambler had become addicted, that he had acquired a habit that he now finds very difficult to break.  In the case of the gambler there is a continuity, a connectedness, a habit that over-arches without binding, that conditions without determining.  The philosophical materials that Sartre has assembled are just fine in the area of disruption, which means that they make it quite intelligible to us why the gambler must choose, and choose, and choose.  Sartre’s own philosophical materials do not, however, do such a good job of making clear to us the character of that habit, that addiction, which keeps haunting the gambler after every choice so that he must choose yet again. Whitehead has, as does Sartre, the philosophical materials at hand to support discontinuity—Whitehead has his perishing to match Sartre’s Nothing-ness.  Whitehead has an extra richness of philosophical resources to draw upon that enables him to underwrite the experiential encounter with habit much more successfully than can Sartre.  I need to say a word about these resources which enable Whitehead to underwrite continuity and connectedness at the same time that the disruption of perishing is preserved.

In spite of the prominence in Whitehead’s thought of the notions of perishing, dead data, becoming, and process, all of which suggest passing and loss, perhaps the most fundamental notion in his philosophical stockpile is the notion of relatedness.  To paraphrase Berkeley, for Whitehead, to be is to be in relation.  It is a fundamental notion in his process metaphysics that, as he says, “it belongs to the nature of a ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming.’”  This claim, which he refers to as the Principle of Relativity, is further described as asserting “that the notion of an ‘entity’ means ‘an element contributory to the process of becoming’” (PR, 33).  A Whiteheadean actual entity becomes and perishes, but its perishing, its death rattle so to speak, is the donation of just that form of definiteness which it has become as part of the initial datum for the conformal moment of its successor occasion, which successor occasion then embarks upon its process, its becoming, its adventure of appropriating its actual world into its own unique definiteness.  Whitehead says at one point that the difference between a brute fact and a mere possibility is that a brute fact cannot be ignored, which is just another way of drawing attention to the Principle of Relativity, to the notion that a perishing actual entity is yet a brooding presence which lays its mark on the initial conditions which are received, and then sorted out in terms of their importance and value by the process of becoming which is the reality of the emerging successor occasion.  The key point for a Whiteheadian is that in this moment of transition from past to present, from preceding actual occasion to subsequent actual occasion, the decision, the power, the reality, the spontaneity of response is all located in the present; it is located in the concrescing, becoming occasion that is organizing its own affirmation, denial, or creative transformation of its inherited initial conditions.  The difference between Whitehead’s vision of what is going on here and the vision of the determinist like Edwards can be imaginatively illustrated by considering what happens on top of a pool table when the cue ball hits the eight ball.  For Edwards, the power, the actuality, the action, the determining dynamism is located in the incoming cue ball and the eight ball is passive, battered, kicked around.  In contrast, Whitehead’s account of the moment of transition between actual entities related in a string of becomings is suggesting that it is as though the cue ball, at the moment of contact, perishes and that the dynamism, the actuality, the vitality, the shaping power, the becoming is all on the side of the eight ball.  Certainly, the moment of conformal inheritance that initiates the dynamism of the eight ball is provided by the death throes of the cue ball, but how that conformal inheritance is appropriated into the final satisfaction which is the reaction of the eight ball to the character of its conformal inheritance is, in this imaginative analogy, a function of the processes which constitute the becoming of the eight ball.

Whitehead is quite aware that in the physical world a good pool player knows the moment he strokes the cue ball just where that eight ball is going to go.  But Whitehead, at just this point, can be seen to be laying the groundwork for how it is that he can do justice to man as a part of nature.  In actual entities of a very simple sort—simple because they are not located at nodal points in very complexly organized living bodies—the dynamic reaction of whatever it is that is the analogue to the eight ball is extremely limited.  It is mere reiteration stamped by the unique space-time location of the eight ball occasion, we might say.  Speaking of such a simple actual entity, Whitehead observes that “its own flash of autonomous individual experience is negligible. . . . We have—in the case of the simpler actual entities—an example of the transference of energy in the physical world. . . . So far as we can see, inorganic entities are vehicles for receiving, for storing in a napkin, and for restoring without loss or gain” (PR, 245, 246, 177).  In other words, the eight ball, because in the process of its dynamic becoming there is no loss or gain, only reiteration, is perfectly predictable.  In another sentence Whitehead puts this point less metaphorically and more technically: “In so far as there is negligible autonomous energy, the subject merely receives the physical feelings, confirms their valuations according to the ‘order’ of that epoch, and transmits by reason of its own objective immortality” (PR, 245).  A few sentences later, however, Whitehead reminds us that not all actual occasions are simple; not all actual occasions have negligible autonomous energy.  To the contrary, the complex actual occasions found in the brains of higher animals and human beings, in virtue of the richness and complexity, and bodily organization of their inheritance, come to have a good bit of autonomous energy.  Whitehead is pointing this out when he concludes this passage by observing: “But as soon as individual experience is not negligible, the autonomy of the subject in the modification of its initial subjective aim must be taken into account” (PR, 245), which is just to say that whereas we can predict the movement of the eight ball, watch out if you kick a human being in the seat of the pants!  In his account of how actual entities are related, Whitehead has aimed at structuring it so that, by putting the dynamism at the point of the eight ball instead of the cue ball, he can give an account of how it is that there is reliable predictability at the level of inorganic structures yet increasing unreliability as we rise up the scale of organic beings with their increasingly complex responses to the initial data they inherit from their pasts.

We are now in a position to return to the subject of habit—to why our gambler continues to be tempted by the casino—having encountered in recent paragraphs distinctions which permit a fuller account of how it is that Whitehead can encompass in his conceptuality both perishing and habit.  Each actual entity is a new being, the dawning of a new day, but each actual entity begins its day by appropriating, in what Whitehead calls its conformal phase, the pattern of definiteness which characterized the final satisfactions of the actual entities in its immediate past, which Whitehead refers to as its actual world.  How that actual world is appropriated, that is, what in it is valued up and what in it is valued down, emerges from the act of becoming, the concrescent process, which is the very being of that concrescing actual entity.  In the context of very simple actual entities, where reiteration is mere repetition and there is no novelty in the reaction but mere storage in a napkin with a restoration that involves neither loss nor gain; in such a context of very simple actual entities we are not in the domain of habit, but, rather, in the domain of transference of energy in what we normally refer to as the physical world.  At the other extreme, in the context of actual entities that are very complex, which reach the level of consciousness in their creative responses to inherited data, we do not encounter habit either, but, rather, the conscious arena within which we often find ourselves battling habits which we have come to label bad habits.  The domain of habits lies in between these extremes.

Whitehead, when he begins to apply his general philosophical categories to human being, when, given my focus in this paper, he turns to the sorts of analyses in terms of which we can see how his categories do justice to human being as a part of nature, distinguishes two sorts of investigations, which he names “physical physiology” and “psychological physiology.”  Keep in mind that Whitehead is not a dualist; he is seeking to overcome such bifurcations as mind-matter, subject-object, and so forth.  He does not recognize two sorts of substance, mind and matter.  In this context he is a neutral monist: you have actual entities, period.  He recognizes, however, as any thinker who wishes to retain any credibility at all must recognize, that his philosophy must have elements, as he says, that answer to Plato’s notion of soul as well as elements which answer to the physicist’s notion of the transference of energy in the physical world.  When Whitehead turns to human being he is involved in both physical physiology, which deals with structures or societies of very simple actual entities constitutive of the sorts of thing that are studied in gross anatomy, and psychological physiology, which deals with structures or societies of increasing complexity which constitute the nervous system.  Whitehead actually provides very little detail in his brief discussions of psychological physiology, so his conceptual framework just begs for some fleshing out.  It begs for the sort of enrichment that could be derived from the phenomenological explorations of a Merleau-Ponty into the conscious and not quite so conscious dimensions of experience, and from the emerging scientific studies of how the neural networks in the brain are put together and how they function.

The Whiteheadian language of actual entities and their structures is ideally adapted to synthesize the phenomenologist’s language, developed from the inside, with the scientist’s language, developed from the outside.  Psychological physiology, in Whitehead’s hands, and as augmented by a few of us interested in these matters, views that thing we would call the mind as composed of layers of integrated and structured societies of actual entities, inheriting both from themselves and from the inorganic structures studied in physical physiology, structures such as the sense organs.  Dominating these layers of structured societies is a thin strand of inheritance from complex actual entity to complex actual entity which Whitehead refers to as the regnant nexus.  This regnant nexus is what answers to our sense of a narrow, conscious self, but the Whiteheadian analysis suggests that this nexus is just the apex of those layers of structured societies, those layers containing, below the surface, a mass of feelings and experiences that sometimes breaks into the mainstream of conscious inheritance and sometimes chugs along below the surface, so to speak, bearing along stored, but not now noticed, memories, attitudes, values, and even habits.  On this view, habits are patterns of experience that are carried forward largely beneath the surface of consciousness by means of that mode of inheritance that is a bit like the mode of inheritance in the physical world; the “stored in a napkin and restored without loss or gain” mode of inheritance.  Inheritance of such patterns of experience is what is behind the reformed gambler’s temptation, is why he has to give up gambling every time he passes by the casino on the way to work.  The mode of inheritance at the levels where habits reside is, however, at a fair remove from the domain of physical physiology, is, rather, well up into the domain studied by psychological physiology, and in this domain conscious control and discipline can, over time, modify structures of inheritance, although often only with difficulty.

A fine example of work done on habit by phenomenologists, work from which Whiteheadians could learn much as well as contribute to, is an essay by Edward Casey titled “Habitual Body and Memory in Merleau-Ponty,” which appeared in Man and World in 1984.6  Among other things, Casey is concerned in this article to trace the influence of Bergson on Merleau-Ponty and at the same time reveal in both a protest against Cartesian dualism.  Casey writes:  “Habit memory resists construal in the usual Cartesian alternatives of matter or mind.  For the habitual in matters of memory is neither strictly mental (as in the case of ‘image memory’) nor entirely physical (as in trace theory).  It is both at once, thoroughly mental and yet wholly bodily.”7

In my judgment Casey is absolutely correct in stressing that habit memory is neither strictly mental nor entirely physical, but “both at once, thoroughly mental and yet wholly bodily.”  I have great difficulty understanding how that can be if I bring only the materials permitted by phenomenology to my encounter with the claim.  I want to suggest that Whitehead’s ontology—his analysis of the complex structured societies constitutive of a human being—are richer philosophical materials.  In particular, the distinction between physical physiology and psychological physiology, which I have elaborated in the previous two paragraphs, provides exactly the nondualistic context for really understanding what Casey means by the expression “thoroughly mental and yet wholly bodily”—in my Whiteheadian language he means “inhabiting the domain of psychological physiology.”  My conclusion here is that Merleau-Ponty is in great need of Whitehead’s assistance, and Whitehead is in equal need of the concrete phenomenological investigations of Merleau-Ponty and disciples such as Casey.  Merleau-Ponty had with great excitement just discovered Whitehead very shortly before his death; I suspect that considerations such as those here adumbrated might well have been the cause of his excitement.

To return to our theme, the reformed gambler struggles, as Sartre points out. But he struggles precisely because while there is at the heart of his experience, on the one hand, cleavage, nothingness, disconnection, perishing, and that sense of angst at having to choose, there is also in his experience, on the other hand, connection and habit; that sense of a past which bears in on the present which it shapes.  In short, the gambler behaves like a real human being because he coherently lives continuity and disruption, habit and perishing in one and the same unified experience.  Looked at from within Whitehead’s perspective, the opposition between a Sartre and an Edwards evaporates: an either-or is replaced by a both-and.  Whitehead is keenly attuned to the scientific mentality that dominates in Edward’s orientation; he is at great pains, for example, to provide a clear and precise meaning within his categoreal scheme for the notion of the transference of energy within a physical system.  On the other hand, thinking Whitehead and Sartre together, that is, juxtaposing perishing and nothingness, reveals clearly that Whitehead is also attuned to the dimension of human experience which a Sartre and a Heidegger are convinced, and rightly so, that we ignore at our intellectual peril.

I have made reference above to our deep sense of continuing personhood, suggesting that my emphasis on discontinuity, nothingness, and perishing must at some level be compatible with, or accommodate, the notion of continuing, unified personhood.  Philosophers critical of Whitehead have often focused their dissatisfaction on what they find in his thought to be an inadequate notion of self or person.  Does Whitehead have the resources to produce an adequate account of persisting selfhood?  Of course I intend this question to be taken rhetorically, for I am convinced that the Whiteheadian notions that I have already introduced as a framework for talking about the notion of habit are precisely the notions we need to speak to our experience of self.  I will conclude with just a few observations about this notion of self or person.

As an outward looking Whiteheadian, I have appealed to Sartre as a source of enriching phenomenological description and insight in the context of an exploration of indeterminism.  Similarly, in thinking about personhood and self-identity, I would want to appeal to certain students of continental thought who have been especially interested in developing the notion of narrative in their search for self.  Discussions of narrative have been about for some time; not only is the notion importantly present in such thinkers as Ricoeur and Gadamer and those influenced by them on the continent, the concept of narrative also crops up in interesting ways in other traditions.  I recently attended a lecture by David Wood in which he expressed many intriguing ideas concerning self identity and narrative, ideas which seem true to experience.  They seem to beg for grounding in a metaphysical foundation such as that provided by Whitehead, though I am quite aware that those persons, like Wood, who explore the notion of narrative from within the horizons of phenomenology are likely to be persons not much interested in metaphysical foundations.

David Wood works away from the insight that self identity is constituted rather than given.  In his words, “identity is a product and not an origin,” an insight that flows from the more basic intuition that “there are no identities in nature.”8  From this perspective selfhood requires the presence of some form of identity over time, and narratives are what provide this identity over time.  Narratives come in all sorts of widths, from the skinny ones that bear the self-identity of a particular individual person to the rather chubby ones that bear full blown cultural identities.  My interest here is in the skinny sort of narrative constitutive of the self-identity which is an individual person.  It is interesting to note, however, that Wood’s vision of chubby narratives allows him to arrive at such interesting conclusions as that the proper way to understand nihilism is to see it as asserting that all the broader narratives which are the bearers of cultural values are crumbling about us.  It is a short jump from the crumbling of narratives bearing cultural values to the crumbling of narratives bearing individual personhood, to the domain of personality disintegration.  This perhaps sheds light on why it is that so many persons adopting the point of view of narratives also find themselves fascinated by the work of Freud, Jung, and Maynard Boss.  It is not just continental thinkers who embrace the fundamental insight that identity is a product and not an origin.  Chet Lieb, recently deceased, wrote in his last book Past, Present and Future: “Individuals have no core, no form, no self that remains unchanged through different present times; there is no bottom to an individual’s depth.”  What a wonderful positive spin placed on a claim that many find a critical weakness in Whitehead and continental thinkers alike: there is no bottom to an individual’s depth!

My response to these observations on personhood and narrative is to say that all the ingredients of a Whiteheadian account of person are to be found in my previous discussion of habit.  Those layers of complex structured societies investigated by psychological physiology, containing below the surface a mass of feelings and experiences which sometimes breaks into the stream of conscious inheritance and sometimes chugs along below the surface (so far below the surface in some cases that it is properly designated bodily and studied with the tools of physical physiology), are the bearers of narratives constitutive of selfhood; the bearers of meanings, values, skills, recollections, and all the other habitual and quasi-habitual structures that constitute the persons whom we are.  In his clear, direct way, Casey speaks to just this point:  “Skilled actions are only a subset . . . of habitual body memories, which also include many unskilled and unuseful actions such as slouching in a certain way, gesturing excessively when speaking, drooling unselfconsciously, or grimac-ing at insects.  The list could go on almost indefinitely: until, finally, one’s entire personal being, one’s character or style, would be reached. For character and style . . . are very much constituted by habit memories expressed bodily.”9

I described myself above as an outward looking Whiteheadian.  I have tried to convey the sense that philosophically oriented Whiteheadians, as distinguished from theologically mesmerized Whiteheadians, have the potentiality to reach out toward other philosophical traditions, particularly the phenomenological tradition as embodied in the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his successors such as Edward Casey, both to make contributions and to learn.  And it is also the case that in making these investigations into indeterminism, habit, and personhood, one comes to realize the accuracy of Paul Weiss’s observation that Whitehead is, indeed, one of those rare and stimulating thinkers who has succeeded in doing justice to man as a part of nature.



1 Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), 43; subsequently cited in the text as BN followed by page numbers.

2 A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards and Arthur Pap (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1957), 310.

3 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 154; subsequently cited in the text as PR followed by page numbers.

4 William Ernest Hocking, “Whitehead as I Knew Him,” in Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, ed. George L. Kline (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 8.

5 Charles Michael Johnson, “On Prehending the Past,” Process Studies 6, no. 4 (1976): 257.

6 Edward S. Casey, “Habitual Body and Memory in Merleau-Ponty,” Man and World 17 (1984): 279-97.

7 Casey, “Habitual Body and Memory,” 280.

8 David Wood discussed these and other matters in several informal presentations to faculty and students at Vanderbilt University in January of 1994.

9 Casey, “Habitual Body and Memory,” 282.


Posted April 15, 2007


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