Quantcast Donald W. Sherburne "Mais Où Sont Les Neiges D’Antan?"


Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Metaphysics as Foundation: Essay in Honor of Ivor Leclerc.  Paul A. Bogaard and Gordon Treash, eds., Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993, 111-121.  Sherburne notes the prima facie ambiguity of “constituted” in Whitehead’s Ninth Category of Explanation wherein he affirms that the being of an actual entity is constituted” by its becoming.  By constituted” did Whitehead mean “identical to”?  Or “establishing, setting up, or founding” (and therefore not “identical to”)?  Sherburne argues that the latter interpre-tation, although championed by able Whitehead scholars Lewis S. Ford and George L. Kline, “makes no sense!” 

Mais Où Sont Les Neiges D’Antan?

Donald W. Sherburne

“But where are the snows of yesteryear?” wondered the fifteenth-century French poet Francois Villon in the haunting refrain which closes each stanza of his best-known poem, the Ballade of the Ladies of Byegone Times.  His question haunts us still.  The question of the status of the past is particularly insistent for those of us oriented toward the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead.  In recent years the question of the status of the past has become even more urgent to me personally because two of my friends whom I admire very much as interpreters of process thought—Lewis Ford and George Kline—have advanced an understanding of the process account of the status of the past which I find puzzling and wrongheaded.  For some time I have been toying with ways of responding to their claims.  Just recently I have been reading in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness with some students, and, wonder of wonders, I found myself gaining from that unlikely source insights about how I might respond to the Ford/Kline interpretation.  I hasten to note that I have no intention of defending a Sartrean position in this paper; to the contrary, some of the insights I will draw upon emerged as I read criticisms of Sartre advanced by Marjorie Grene in her book, Sartre.  What has struck me, though, as I have pursued these ideas, is the fact that the more one thinks Whitehead and Sartre together, the more interesting the fruits of their juxtapositioning become.  Finally, the line from Villon sprang to mind not only because I have been thinking in a Gallic mode, but because, having just recently arrived for a working vacation in Florida in a rare snow and ice storm, I now find myself looking out over a warm sandy beach to the ocean beyond deeply grateful that wherever those snows of yesterweek may be, they most assuredly are not here and now.

Ford and Kline have torn apart being and becoming1 whereas I believe that, considered from within the process perspective, they are most happily viewed as one.  Ford and Kline wish to say that an actual entity enjoys its process of becoming, the becoming runs its course, and then the actual entity acquires the status of being, which persists for a long time in some cases, and not so long in others.  In contrast, I hold that an actual entity’s becoming is its being, and that when the one perishes, so does the other.  The whole point of the process point of view, it seems to me, is to insist that ousia, that which is, being, is process, becoming, and not an enduring, persisting, substantial substrate.  Another way of getting at what I perceive to be the difference between the Ford/Kline position and my own is to consider the title of Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process and Reality.  Is there a redundancy in the title or not?  Bradley’s famous title, Appearance and Reality, clearly does not involve a redundancy—Bradley is most assuredly out to separate appearance, on the one hand, from reality, on the other.  Is Whitehead doing the same thing in his title, as persons influenced by the Ford/Kline arguments have suggested?  I think not.  Rather, Whitehead, who is, for starters, totally opposed to Bradley’s distinction between appearance and reality, seems to me to be (probably deliberately) building that opposition into his own title.  I understand Whitehead’s title to be an emphatic statement of his commitment to the intuition that reality is process and that process is reality.  On this view, it makes no sense to claim that once the becoming of an actual entity is finished, once it achieves its satisfaction, then it enters upon its being and continues to exist in this mode for a shorter or longer time depending on the scope of its impact down through the years or ages, as the case may be.

Now wait a minute, one might well say.  Surely, it might seem, on a question such as this Whitehead must have unambiguously tipped his hand, must have clearly articulated his position.  So why, it seems natural to ask, would anyone propose to run off to the concepts of someone as un- Whiteheadian as Sartre in order to cast light on what Whitehead meant in the very title of his most famous book?  Alas, Whitehead was not asking just the sorts of questions about the past that many of us want to ask now, and when he did write around in the neighborhood of these sorts of questions, his words take on a frustrating ambiguity.  There is no more vivid example of this exasperating ambiguity than the wording of Category of Explanation ix:  “That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent.  Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming.’   This is the ‘principle of process’.”2  That word ‘constituted’ in the penultimate sentence has been the focus of a good deal of debate.  On the face of it, it seems clear to me that this ninth Category of Explanation, presenting the principle of process, makes my case, but the Ford/Kline axis hastens to point out the ambiguity of “constituted.”   It can mean to make up, to form or compose—this is the way I would naturally read the word, giving the conclusion that Whitehead is presenting being and becoming here as identical.  My opponents read the word “constitute” in a different sense, the sense of establishing, setting up, founding.  This is a perfectly legitimate dictionary meaning of the word (as is, I hasten to add, the meaning I would prefer to give it).  Given this second sense of “constitute,” the Ford/Kline camp gleefully asserts that what Whitehead is saying in his ninth Category of Explanation is that becoming sets up, shapes, founds that which comes later, namely being. Here we seem to have reached an impasse.

This impasse is very real—it seems to be the case that whatever further evidence either side hauls out of the text to buttress its understanding of the proper way of reading “constituted,” the other side finds a way of interpreting the new evidence as either supporting, or at least not threatening, its reading.3  Given this standoff, the tactical move of David Hume, to beat around a bit in the bushes lining neighboring fields in hopes of stirring up new game, doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.  Sartre’s phenomenological analyses may not sound like a very close “neighboring field,” but the possibility that there is new game there will hopefully justify the journey.

First, more about the Ford/Kline interpretation of being, for it is here that contact with the ideas of Sartre will first occur.  As Ford sees it, the extent of the persistence of the being of an actual entity is a contingent matter.  Something continues in its being as long as it continues to be taken into account by actually concrescing actual occasions.  As its connectedness to the actual, concrescing present becomes more and more tenuous, the being of that something becomes more and more tenuous-finally, when all connectedness to the present vanishes, so, too, vanishes the being of that something.  Cleopatra and Napoleon continue in being, whereas the being of, respectively, their handmaidens and manservants has slid over the horizon, has perished, has vanished into nothingness.

Traditional understandings about the notion of being are engaged here.  Since the time of Plato philosophers have recognized the idea that the hallmark of being is to be effective in some way or other.  The Ford/Kline orientation clearly plays to that traditional understanding.  There is also a legacy from the Greeks, from Parmenides as well as Plato, that being is unchanging.  Again, the Ford/Kline position makes contact with that dimension of the tradition, for it is very clear that Whitehead insists that once an actual entity has completed its concrescence, its becoming, its decision making, its process is over, used up, finished, passed by, never to reappear.  This same tradition, however, carries with it the conviction that being is more perfect that becoming, that it is the domain of the real as opposed to the domain of appearance, the locus of value, the natural domain of rational activity.  These features of the tradition ought to make adherents of the Ford/Kline position a bit uneasy, as these are all features or factors which it is clear Whitehead associates with becoming, process, immediacy, subjectivity.  However, arguing out the issues regarding the past in these terms is very difficult, very slippery, very tricky, and probably as inconclusive as the debates surrounding the word “constituted.”  So on to Sartre and Being and Nothingness.

I hear very strong echoes of the Ford/Kline position in the following passage from Sartre:

Today I alone am responsible for the being of the dead Pierre, I in my freedom.  Those dead who have not been able to be saved and transported to the boundaries of the concrete past of a survivor are not past; they along with their pasts are annihilated.4

Note that Sartre is speaking of the “being” of the dead Pierre, just as Ford would speak of the being of Napoleon or Cleopatra.  Pierre, Napoleon, and Cleopatra are past beings because they lie within the boundaries of the concrete past of at least one survivor; those handmaidens and manservants, alas, have fallen outside the boundaries of the concrete past of any and all survivors, and hence they have been annihilated.  (This appeal to the concept of annihilation puts one in mind of Whitehead’s observation that “. . . in separation from actual entities there is nothing, merely nonentity—‘The rest is silence.’”5)

Now that we have seen that there is a certain similarity between the way that Sartre speaks about the past and the way that the Ford/Kline interpretation leads one to speak about the past, we need to say just a brief word about the conceptuality that leads Sartre to his way of speaking.  If it should turn out that the conceptuality that leads to Sartre’s way of speaking is wildly at odds with the Whiteheadian conceptuality, then it might be that the point of difference is just that “neighboring field” in which we can scare up some game.

Sartre’s discussion of the past centers around his notion of the for-itself.  Part II of BN is titled “Being-for-Itself” and the first chapter of part II is titled “Immediate Structures of the For-itself.”  The second chapter, from which our Pierre quote comes, provides a deepening of our understanding of the for-itself by exploring its relation to the temporal dimensions.  For-itself is Sartre’s term for conscious human being.  Consciousness is a “no-thing,” a nothingness.  As a “decompression” from the infinite density of being-initself, being-for-itself is a hole in being, detached, a lack that experiences itself as a freedom.  Expressed in temporal terms, for-itself is, to use Heidegger’s expression, “out-ahead-of-itself-being.”  That consciousness, that nothingness, that lack, that freedom experiences itself from within a temporal thickness where its own being lags behind it, never quite catching up with it, which is why Sartre can say that the being of consciousness is not what it is and is what it is not.

This temporal structure radiates out from consciousness, from nothingness.  Being-in-itself, infinitely dense material stuff, does not admit of temporal structures.  “These observations enable us to refuse a priori to grant a past to the in-self . . .”6  Temporality is indissolvably linked to the for-itself; “We have seen that the Past is an ontological law of the For-itself...”7  This is the context within which Sartre and other phenomenologists employ the concept, “horizon.”  Past and future spread out as horizons for the for-itself which I am.  The dead Pierre still lies within the horizon of my past; when he slides over that horizon Pierre is “annihilated.”

I have long been perplexed by a nagging question that arises for me out of this horizon talk:  Can one take this horizon talk seriously and still take evolution seriously?  I mean, really take evolution seriously?  What happens to the conviction which is an integral part of the modem world that there was a time, about which we know a great deal, before consciousness arrived on the evolutionary scene?  I recall that Teillard de Chardin, in The Phenomenon of Man, wrote something to the effect that it was from now on impossible to philosophize seriously without keeping the theory of evolution constantly in mind.  I agree with this observation wholeheartedly.  I have the very uneasy feeling when I hear the continental talk of “horizons” that evolution has slipped out of the picture.  When I ask existentialists or phenomenologists about evolution, I get what seems to me to be an unsatisfactory, evasive response, a response that says, “Evolution, oh sure, but when you consider evolution you are always considering it from within the horizon of your own immediate experience.”  Well yes, but no!  Of course evolution, and all those fossils, and all those DNA mappings are grasped and understood by human beings, but that thinking and those understandings are, for me, filtered through the strong, uncompromising realism of Whitehead’s ground-floor metaphysical instincts.  For me, evolution is no complex of structures within the horizon of human experience but, rather, a window out on to a wider reality of which human being is a part and to which human being is attached, but which transcends human being as assuredly as France transcends Paris.

This is something like the point made by Marjorie Grene in her very astute study, Sartre.8  Grene’s book is most insightfully faithful to the spirit and meaning of Sartre’s texts, an achievement quite remarkable for one who nevertheless has serious reservations about the starting assumption of the whole Sartrean project.  That starting point is the Cartesian starting point.  Concerning Sartre, Grene writes:

He is the ultimate and most consequent Cartesian, carrying what remains of the Cartesian either-or to its terrifying logical conclusion.  We have seen how he does this by weaving together phenomenological motifs with dialectical methods, but always on the strict conceptual ground of Cartesian consciousness, Cartesian freedom, and Cartesian time.  Thus, it is that the Sartre of Being and Nothingness and even, in a way, of the Critique, represents for us the “tragic finale” of a tradition initiated in the seventeenth century—the tradition that conceived of a pure, and purely rational, center of conscious activity seeking to control a purely passive material world.9

When Grene turns to her sharpest criticism of that starting point,10 she zeroes in on the notion of the prereflective cogito:  “This prereflective cogito, then, is the condition of the Cartesian cogito, as of every cogitatio.  It is [for Sartre] the absolute beginning of philosophy.”11  It is precisely here, at the stage of the analysis of this prereflective, nonthetic, nonpositional consciousness, that, in Grene’s view, Sartre has made his fatal error.  Grene’s analysis is subtle and complex; the heart of her critique is the claim that Sartre is in error when he insists that it is a necessary condition of prereflective consciousness that it be conscious of being conscious of whatever it knows.  Sartre insists that:

The necessary and sufficient condition for a knowing consciousness to be knowledge of its object is that it be conscious of itself as being that knowledge.  This is a necessary condition, for if my consciousness were not consciousness of being consciousness of the table, it would then be consciousness of that table without consciousness of being so.  In other words, it would be a consciousness ignorant of itself, an unconscious—which is absurd. 12

Is an unconscious an absurd notion?  Freud certainly did not think so, and Sartre’s assumptions in his argument in BN with Freud on this point (90-94) can certainly be challenged.  The notion of “consciousness that is not conscious of being conscious of X” does not seem to be quite the same as the notion of “an unconscious consciousness.”  Grene makes this point as follows:

Nor is forgetting myself in my concentration on what, via the nonthetic, I seek to posit, to be identified with unconsciousness.  Quite the contrary: the outward thrust of subsidiary awareness is the very transcendence of self that makes intentionality possible.

Why does Sartre fail to see this?  Why does he argue that a nonself-conscious consciousness would be unconscious?  Clearly because for him, in Being and Nothingness as already in the Emotions, the cogito has been taken as the unique and indispensable starting point of all philosophy. . . . In moving the content of consciousness out into the world, Sartre has nevertheless retained the Cartesian thesis that the first unique moment of thought must be thinking about thinking: consciousness, to be consciousness, must be self-directed and self-contained.13

Grene’s repudiation of Sartre’s fundamental assumption has its roots, not in Whitehead, but in Michael Polanyi.  Following Polanyi, she denies that all cognitive consciousness is thetic; rather, she believes that it is “the case that there is always a nonthetic foundation, a foundation of what Michael Polanyi calls subsidiary awareness, at the root of even the most plainly intuitive, positional (or, in Polanyi’s language, focal) awareness of an object.”14  Grene’s conclusion is that such:

Non-thetic consciousness is essential, not only to the being of the for-itself, but to knowledge-that is, to the relation of the for-itself and the in-itself.  It is not prereflectively reflexive, but outward directed; it directs the for-itself toward the in-itself.  To see this, however, would have meant for Sartre a radical denial of his Cartesian starting point.  And then he would not be Sartre.15

We have done a considerable amount of beating around in our neighboring field, but at last we are in sight of our prey.  What emerges from all this is an appreciation of the stark contrast between the position of Sartre and the alternatives offered by a Polanyi or a Whitehead-Sartre begins with the cogito; they begin with relatedness.  Grene’s nonthetic foundation, Polanyi’s subsidiary awareness, and Whitehead’s prehensive relationship are all three, alike, ways of abandoning Sartre’s Cartesian starting point.  Whitehead could be just as well gently mocking the Cartesians and the post-Hegelian British idealists as Kant when he wryly observes that Kant was “led to balance the world upon thought—oblivious to the scanty supply of thinking.”16

Now back to the Ford/Kline account of the past, back to Cleopatra, Napoleon, the dead Pierre, and those handmaidens and manservants.  Given his starting point, Sartre is locked into his account of “the being of the dead Pierre”—”being,” to begin with, is “back there” as opposed to the nothingness of the present for-itself, and further, “the being of the dead Pierre” is suspended in its being only by the present nihilating Sartre, who is “responsible for” it.  However, abandon that Cartesian starting point, and abandon it in the particular way that Whitehead does, and everything changes.  Consciousness no longer supports the past; rather, it blossoms out of a prior ground that supports it.  As Whitehead writes, “For Kant, the world emerges from the subject; for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from the world. . . .”17  This relationship implies that “consciousness is the crown of experience, only occasionally attained, not its necessary base.”18  From a Whiteheadian perspective that ground in the past from which consciousness arises, which supports and generates consciousness, enjoys its ontological fullness quite apart from, quite independent of, the consciousness to which it gives rise.  To suggest that that ground in the past is dependent in its being on the persisting presence of its conscious entertainment is simply to fly in the face of those doctrines at the very heart of Whitehead’s reorientation of the Cartesian subjectivism.  So yes, I am aware of the stories of Cleopatra and Napoleon, and yes, their handmaidens and manservants, however, have been lost in the haze of temporal and historical indistinctness.  Can that mean that Cleopatra and Napoleon enjoy an ontological status now lost by the hired help?  In the context of Sartre’s account, his entire analysis of being and nonbeing demands the answer, “Yes!”  In the context of Whitehead’s account, to give a different ontological status to the historical “principals” on the one hand, and the historical “extras” on the other, makes no sense at all.

What have I done here?  I certainly have not provided anything like a coercive proof of the position I hold.  I have argued that the Ford/Kline interpretation has a striking similarity to the position of Sartre concerning this business of the being of past entities; I have then exposed the fundamental philosophical assumptions that lead to the Sartrean position; finally I have shown that Whitehead’s fundamental assumptions are diametrically at odds with those assumptions which lead to the Sartrean viewpoint.  Thinking of the issue in terms of these relationships opens one up, I hope and believe, to my reading of Whitehead’s account of being, becoming, and the past.  That reading is as follows.  Each generation of actual entities pours the structures of its completed satisfactions into the subsequent generation of emerging, becoming occasions.  The wrapping up of its own process of becoming marks the perishing, the death, of each actual entity.  “In this process the creativity, universal throughout actuality, is characterized by the datum from the past; and its meets this dead datum. . . “19  In perishing, each actual entity is also objectively immortal in that it has poured the structure of its completed satisfaction into the generation of actual entities that supersedes it.  So Napoleon has indeed perished and gone—dead.  Yet he is objectively immortal in that the structure of his life impinged upon what followed it.  Those manservants are on a complete ontological par with their master—they also have perished and gone, and yet they are objectively immortal in precisely the sense that Napoleon is, namely, the structures of their lives impinged upon what followed them in precisely the same metaphysical manner as did the structures of the life of Napoleon.  The “width” and/or the “depth of persistence” of that influence can vary greatly—and in the case of Napoleon and his manservants they obviously do—but the ontological significance of this width and persistence is, in the case of Whitehead (unlike that of Sartre), absolutely nil.  How puzzling, then, it is that any Whiteheadians would want to maintain, as does Ford especially, that Napoleon persists in his being while those inglorious manservants have receded into nonbeing.  Sartre can maintain that distinction; for a Whiteheadian it makes no sense!

* * *

A gloriously warm Florida January has swiftly passed as I have alternately sketched out this article and done Florida-type things.  Those unusual snows of late December, like Napoleon, have perished, gone—though their effects on the citrus crop linger on.  As I depart now for a February, March, April, and May at Carleton College in Minnesota, I know I will encounter many snows in the months ahead.  Whichever of the twenty-eight varieties of snow that the Eskimos distinguish they may be,20 of one thing I am quite confident: les neiges d’ antan do not lie in wait for me there, or anywhere else, for they be not.


1 Ford and Kline have edited a collection of essays in which each has a contribution which argues the position in question. The book is titled Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 1983). Kline’s article is entitled “Form, Concrescence, and Concretum,” and Ford’s views are most clearly presented in the final essay in the book, titled “Afterword,” especially pages 318-331.

2 PR 23 [34-35].

3 I will cite just a few of these examples.  In his seminal study, Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1958), 69, Ivor Leclerc quotes the following passage from Whitehead’s Modes of Thought, 131:  “. . . that ‘existence’ (in any of its senses) cannot be abstracted from ‘process.’  The notions of ‘process’ and ‘existence’ presuppose each other.”  This sounds rather convincing to me, and Ford is clearly aware of the passage—he refers, in the essay I have identified in endnote I, to Leclerc’s use of the passage, but promptly denies it any significance.  Here is another passage which occurs a few pages from the end of chapter 4 in Whitehead’s earlier book, Science and the Modern World:  “Thus nature is a structure of evolving processes.  The reality is the process.”  Now that statement seems to me to be very close to conclusive evidence for my point of view.  Ford knows the passage well, but with his fixation on the genetic analysis of the composition of Whitehead’s works, he can shrug off the passage as an early, imprecise statement.  One final example:  in a short piece titled “Whitehead as I Knew Him,” published in Kline’s early collection of essays, Alfred North Whitehead, Essays on His Philosophy (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 8, William Ernest Hocking quotes Whitehead as having said, “Reality is becoming; it is passing before one—a remark too obvious to make. . . . You can’t catch a moment by the scruff of the neck—it’s gone, you know.”  (Italics in the text.)  I happen to think that by “gone” Whitehead really meant gone!

4 J. P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness (New York: Washington Square Press, 1966), part II, chap. 2 (“Temporality”), 166, of the standard Hazel Barnes translation.  All future quotes from Being and Nothingness will be identified by BN and page number.

5 PR 43 [68].

6 BN 167.

7 BN 175.

8 Marjorie Grene, Sartre (New York: New Viewpoints, 1973).

9 Sartre, 268.

10 Cf. Sartre, 119-123, 136

11 Sartre, 122.

12 BN 11.

13 Sartre, 121.

14 Sartre, 120-121.

15 Sartre, 136.

16 PR 151 [229].

17 PR 88 [135-136].

18 PR 267 [408].

19 PR 164 [249], italics added.

20 Since arriving in Minnesota I have read an amusing and persuasive piece by Geoffrey K. Pullum in Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 7, no. 2 (May 1989) titled “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.”  Pullum holds that the widely disseminated view that there are many words in Eskimo for snow is a myth, a myth for which questionable scholarship on the part of Benjamin Lee Worf, among others, is largely responsible.  The conclusive evidence for Pullum’s view point is found in an article by Laura Martin titled “‘Eskimo Words for ‘Snow’: A Case Study in the Genesis and Decay of an Anthropological Example,” American Anthropologist 88, no. 2 (June 1986): 418-423.  I am a bit disappointed with the imagination of Eskimos, but join with Pullum and Martin in the campaign to dampen down this fascinating falsehood.

Posted April 18, 2007


Back to Sherburne Page