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The Subjectivist Principle and the Linguistic Turn Revisited

by James E. Lindsey, Jr.

James E. Lindsey, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 97-102, Vol. 6, Number 2, Summer, 1976. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Some years ago Richard M. Rorty argued that in order "to understand the needs which Process and Reality was intended to satisfy, one must understand Whitehead’s diagnosis of the state of modem philosophy" (WEP 134). While this thesis is certainly correct, Rorty’s account of the needs Process and Reality was intended to satisfy requires reexamination. I intend to show that Rorty’s account of Whitehead’s diagnosis is incomplete, in part because some portions of the text of Process and Reality which Rorty quotes need editorial correction. These passages concern the terms "subjectivist bias," "subjectivist principle," and "reformed subjectivist principle." These terms are clearly defined and distinguished by Whitehead but, due to the state of the text, do not stand out as so distinguished.

Having stated his thesis that one must begin with Whitehead’s diagnosis, Rorty quotes him as follows: "The difficulties of all schools of modern philosophy lie in the fact that having accepted the subjectivist principle, they continue to use philosophical categories derived from another point of view" (PR 253; WEP 134; italics mine). In this passage Whitehead clearly intends one to understand "philosophical categories derived from another point of view" as referring to such categories as substance, property, universal, particular, etc. (Rorty also so understands Whitehead’s intent.) It is also clear that Whitehead wants to suggest that having accepted the subjectivist principle, it was not only unnecessary to continue to use those categories, but rather a mistake to do so. Now when one turns to Whitehead’s formal definition of the subjectivist principle and to his discussion of its derivation one finds him saying:

The subjectivist principle is, that the datum in the act of experience can be adequately analysed purely in terms of universals . . . .

The subjectivist principle follows from three premises: (i) The acceptance of the ‘substance-quality’ concept as expressing the ultimate ontological principle. (ii) The acceptance of Aristotle’s definition of a primary substance, as always a subject and never a predicate. (iii) The assumption that the experient subject is a primary substance. (PR 239)

Here the subjectivist principle is seen to be inextricably connected to those "categories from another point of view." Clearly something is amiss; either subjectivist principle has two distinct and incompatible meanings or Whitehead intended some other term in one of these passages.

I suggest that Whitehead intended to say subjectivist bias in the first statement. It would then read as follows: "The difficulties of all schools of modern philosophy lie in the fact that having accepted the [subjectivist bias], they continue to use philosophical categories derived from another point of view" (PR 253). My contention is supported by the explicit diagnosis of the difficulties of Descartes and his followers in which the term subjectivist bias is used:

He [Descartes] also laid down the principle that those substances which are the subjects enjoying conscious experiences provide the primary data for philosophy, namely, themselves as in the enjoyment of such experience. This is the famous subjectivist bias which entered into modem philosophy through Descartes . . . . Descartes missed the full sweep of his own discovery, and he and his successors, Locke and flume, continued to construe the functionings of the subjective enjoyment of experience according to the substance-quality categories. (PR 241; italics mine)

Whitehead also makes it explicitly clear in this context that the joint adoption of the subjectivist bias and of the substance-quality categories is inconsistent: "Yet if the enjoyment of experience be the constitutive subjective fact, these categories have lost all claim to any fundamental character in metaphysics" (PR 241; cf. 243). Still in the same context he declares that "Descartes modified traditional philosophy in two opposite ways"; e.g., emphasizing the substance-quality categories and introducing the subjectivist bias (PR 241; italics mine).

I think we have clear evidence that the two terms subjectivist principle and subjectivist bias must be clearly distinguished. According to Whitehead, the adoption of the subjectivist bias has no necessary connection with any retention of the substance-quality categories and should indeed result in their abandonment (which Whitehead himself did). It is also clear that, according to Whitehead, adopting the subjectivist principle implies the use of the substance-quality categories. Whitehead’s point in both passages (PR 253 and PR 241) is that Descartes, Locke, and Hume, etc., having adopted the subjectivist bias, inconsistently do what they should not do; namely, continue to interpret the datum in the act of experience using the substance-quality categories. In other words, they interpret the datum according to the subjectivist principle.

In the second place, these two notions must be clearly distinguished because Whitehead makes it abundantly clear that he accepts and affirms one -- the subjectivist bias -- while he rejects the other -- the subjectivist principle. The subjectivist bias has to do with what shall be the primary data of philosophy. On this Whitehead finds himself in full agreement with Descartes. He says of the subjectivist bias that it is the greatest discovery since Plato and Aristotle (PR 241). He further insists elsewhere that he "entirely accepts the subjectivist bias of modern philosophy" (PR 253; cf. 243, 123; italics mine). In an earlier passage in Process and Reality, prior to his having given Descartes’ discovery a name, but clearly having to do with the subjectivist bias, Whitehead said:

But Descartes asserts one principle which is the basis of all philosophy: he holds that the whole pyramid of knowledge is based upon the immediate operation of knowing which is either an essential [for Descartes], or a contributory, element in the composition of an immediate actual entity. This is also a first principle for the philosophy of organism. (PR 219)

In spelling out the significance of this principle Whitehead goes on to make it clear that while he is at one with Descartes in identifying what are to be the primary data of philosophy, he differs from Descartes with regard to the how of understanding and interpreting that data -- which is what the subjectivist principle is all about by definition. Descartes continues to employ the traditional "subject-predicate form of proposition, and the philosophical tradition derived from it." Whitehead interprets the data in terms of his own metaphysical categories as "the self enjoyment of being one among many and of being one arising out of the composition of many" (PR 220).

When one carefully distinguishes between the subjectivist bias and the subjectivist principle, it becomes apparent that the subjectivist bias is, in and of itself, in no way the cause of modem philosophical difficulties. It is merely the occasion for the discovery of the difficulties inherent in the substance-quality mode of thought of which the subjectivist principle is but one expression. The subjectivist principle does not occur in either of Whitehead’s diagnostic statements, when amended as I have suggested (see above, PR 253, 241). Thus the focus of both Whitehead’s diagnostic statements, already quoted, is upon the substance-quality categories (or mode of thought) which makes these two texts consistent with one another and with a third such statement occurring earlier in Process and Reality: "All modern philosophy hinges round the difficulty of describing the world in terms of subject and predicate, substance and quality, particular and universal" (PR 78). Interestingly enough, Rorty is in basic agreement with this point. However, he overlooks or ignores those texts which explicitly define the subjective principle and uses the term as if it had the same meaning as the term subjectivist bias, which forty in turn confuses with the reformed subjectivist principle.

This focus upon the substance-quality mode of thought is extremely important. The subjectivist principle has as its premises only three of the doctrines belonging to the complex of notions included by Whitehead under the rubric of substance-quality categories. Cartesian dualism and the notion of "vacuous actuality" are also among the several other doctrines or notions included by Whitehead under this heading. They also constitute part of the problem of modern philosophy (PR 243, 253f. 187). Indeed when we come to discuss the reformed subjectivist principle connected with Whitehead’s proposed solution to the problem of modem philosophy, we shall see that it stands in direct contradiction to both Cartesian dualism and the notion of "vacuous actuality." This is one reason for hesitating about Rorty’s simplification of Whitehead’s diagnosis in terms of the problem of repeatability and unrepeatability. The core of Rorty’s account is as follows: Once the Cartesian Turn is taken and the experiences of subjects become the primary data of philosophy, one is immediately in difficulty as to the analysis of said experience. Its content can only be accounted for in terms of universals -- repeatables -- for no particulars or substances can possibly, being unrepeatables, be both themselves and components of experience (WEP 134 ff.). I simply do not see that the problem so cast takes into account the problems relating either to dualism or to the notion of "vacuous actuality." Be that as it may, there is a still more important aspect to the focus upon the whole substance-quality framework.

A careful reading of the many passages in which Whitehead criticizes the substance-quality mode of thought leads one inevitably to his thesis that it is derived (at least in part) from a "misapprehension" of the true status of "presentational immediacy" (PR 95f., 43, 119f., 253; AI, chapter 14 section IV and chapter 14 as a whole; see IWE 44-55). If we fail to see this, we miss what he took to be the fundamental, primitive, and primary root cause of the difficulties. Indeed the fact that he does not attempt to reform, improve, polish, or alter the various doctrines of the substance-quality mode of thought is in itself strong evidence that these doctrines are not themselves the root cause of the difficulty. Tinkering with them would only treat the symptoms. Whitehead is after cure, after getting at and removing the root cause.

While Whitehead certainly focuses attention upon the substance-quality mode of thought, his intent in doing so is to point out one of the more immediate causes of difficulties -- a cause which ultimately rests upon a more fundamental mistake, namely, the misapprehension of the status of presentational immediacy. However, the substance-quality categories are not his only concern. According to Whitehead, there are two principles whose joint application to the datum in the act of experience leads to modern epistemological difficulties: the subjectivist principle and the "sensationalist principle" (PR 238f.).

The sensationalist principle is, that the primary activity in the act of experience is the bare subjective entertainment of the datum, devoid of any subjective form of reception. This is the doctrine of mere sensation. (PR 239)

Comparing this definition with a more lengthy statement in Adventures of Ideas (chapter 11, paragraphs 6 and 7), we see that the sensationalist principle asserts that the datum in the act of experience is limited, so far as "direct" perception is concerned, to the bare sensa mediated by the sense organs.

How do these principles combine to create difficulties for one who assumes the subjectivist bias? The subjectivist bias limits the philosopher’s data to the experience of subjects. The sensationalist principle asserts that those data are bare sensa, and the subjectivist principle adequately accounts for those sensa as universals. This constitutes an untenable epistemological position in Whitehead’s view.

This focus upon the sensationalist principle concerns only an immediate cause, not the root cause. The sensationalist principle, like the substance-quality mode of thought, is derivative from a misapprehension of the status of presentational immediacy (PR 119 ff., 179, 240, 263-66, 383, 387-89; AI, chapter 14, section IV; see IWE, chapters 1 and 2). An accurate and complete account of Whitehead’s diagnosis of the difficulties of modem philosophy. must come to grips with this misapprehension of the status of presentational immediacy. If so, the reconstruction of philosophy undertaken by Whitehead in terms of the "needs Process and Reality was intended to meet" (WEP 134) was on a far more sweeping scale than the solution of the problem of repeatability and unrepeatability.

Indeed, Whitehead might well say that the problem of repeatability and unrepeatability is simply a rephrasing of aspects of the problem of using the substance-quality categories. The problem of repeatability and unrepeatability and the linguistic difficulties surrounding it are thus ultimately derivative from the misapprehension of presentational immediacy. Rorty never gets beyond a restatement of the immediate causes of philosophical difficulties. To speak metaphorically, he never gets beyond paraphrasing Whitehead’s description of some symptoms of modem philosophy’s malady.

We must now turn to the reformed subjectivist principle. After quoting the passage diagnosing Descartes’ difficulties (which uses the term subjectivist bias), Rorty adds:

Specifically, the attempt to combine the principle that ‘the whole universe consists of elements disclosed in the analysis of the experience of subjects’ (which Whitehead calls the ‘subjectivist principle’) with the substance-quality framework led straight to the Lockeian paradox (WEP 135)

The specific sentence quoted indeed begins "The subjectivist principle is that the whole universe (PR 252), but subjectivist principle is clearly not the correct term here. In the first place the subjectivist principle denies that the experience of subjects can include any other actualities. In the second place, this sentence occurs in a paragraph in which Whitehead is explaining the meaning of the reformed subjectivist principle and its relation to the fourth and ninth of his categories of explanation (the principles of relativity and process respectively). Rorty is less far off the mark in seeming to identify the idea that the "whole universe consists of elements disclosed in the analysis of the experiences of subjects" with the subjectivist bias.

The reformed subjectivist principle is, in spite of its name, not a revised or reformed version of the subjectivist principle. The only thing the two principles have in common is that they both have to do with how the datum of experience is to be interpreted. Whitehead repudiates all three premises of the subjectivist principle. But he accepts the subjectivist bias, and his own reformed subjectivist principle is an extension of that bias. Whitehead says, "The philosophy of organism extends the Cartesian subjectivism by affirming the ‘ontological’ principle and construing it as the definition of ‘actuality"’ (PR 123). The subjectivist bias limits the data of philosophy to the experiences of subjects. The reformed subjectivist principle limits actuality to the experiences of subjects (and/or to what is disclosed in the experiences of such subjects as essential to their constitution): "The reformed subjectivist principle must be repeated: that apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness" (PR 254). This one single statement makes clear the necessity for distinguishing the three terms we are considering. This statement, together with Whitehead’s discussion of the relation of the reformed subjectivist principle to the principles of relativity and of process (PR 252) also makes clear Whitehead’s repudiation of dualism and of the notion of "vacuous actuality." In other words, part of Whitehead’s cure for the ills of modern philosophy involves the repudiation of aspects of the substance-quality mode of thought that are not immediate premises of the subjectivist principle and are not necessarily connected with the problem of repeatability and unrepeatability.



WEP -- George L. Kline, ed., Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, Englewood Cliffs. NJ.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1963, for Richard Rorty, "The Subjectivist Principle and The Linguistic Turn."

IWE -- James E. Lindsey, Jr., An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Epistemology, ThD. Dissertation, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, 1970, c. 1975, available University Microfilms, Inc. See Dissertation Abstracts, May 1975, p. 7351A. (The dissertation gives a fairly detailed account of Whitehead’s thesis that the substance-quality mode of thought derives from the misapprehension of the true status of presentational immediacy.)

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