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Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty: Commitment as a Context for Comparison

by Robert E. Doud

Robert E. Doud is instructor in religious studies at Pasadena City College, Pasadena, California. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 145-160, Vol. 7, Number 3, Fall, 1977. 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.

In a recent article Nicholas F. Gier announced a project which would involve "a comprehensive comparative analysis of phenomenology and process philosophy" (PS 6:197-213). My own article is not intended to introduce such a grand program, but only to derive from Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty in dialogue and comparison a sharpening of the question of commitment. I could not agree with Gier more that intentionality and prehension will be the major comparison in any such enterprise. One recognizes this development as something perceived earlier by Bernard Meland (1:299).

The question of moral responsibility in a dialogue between Merleau-Ponty and Whitehead has been initiated by William S. Hamrick (PS 4:235-51). Hamrick is able to show us that in Merleau-Ponty "to be really effective, spontaneity must be anchored in habitual patterns of behavior," and that "personal existence consists primarily of habitual patterns of behavior." Dealing with Whitehead’s psychological physiology, Hamrick is again able to demonstrate that personal identity "is a temporally continuous pattern of habitual, behavioral definiteness sustained by the regnant society and its supportive nexus," thus dispelling doubts raised by Paul Weiss concerning the possibility of grounding moral responsibility in Whitehead.

My contribution to this discussion is more a matter of supplementation than argumentation. I draw Merleau-Ponty’s notion of ambiguity into comparison with Whitehead’s adventure and investigate the presence of both in the successive phases of the concrescence of an actual occasion. I then investigate the notion of ambiguity as it relates to sedimentation and immanence. Ambiguity emerges as the necessary context for decision and commitment. Personal identity emerges as an ontologizing of the notion of commitment.

Methodologically, there is at least one major problem in comparing Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty. The former operates as a cosmologist and metaphysician, whereas the latter functions as a phenomenologist, or (at least in his earlier works) a describer of states of human consciousness with reference to objects appearing in the world. The human body is the special concern of Merleau-Ponty, and ambiguity is of the essence of human bodily existence. The term "ambiguous" most basically refers to that which has several meanings. The body is ambiguous "because its many parts are not isolated from each other but rather permeate and interpenetrate each other" (PMP 79). Whitehead describes the nature of the universe and of reality as such, while Merleau-Ponty describes the relatedness of the body and the world as perception.

In order to compare Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty, it is necessary to see the phenomenologist in Whitehead and the cosmologist in Merleau-Ponty. Whitehead, as cosmologist, testifies to the psychic dimension, the subject-object relationship, in every morsel of cosmic reality. Merleau-Ponty, as phenomenologist, points to the build-up of experience in terms of sedimentation by analogy to the way in which the crust of the earth is built up. In general, Merleau-Ponty favors a view of the world in which the contribution of the subject is of paramount importance.

The world as described by Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty is basically plural and political. It is a field of several possibilities for a body or subject. Objects in the world support a variety of interpretations or valuations. The subject determines himself or herself as an open possibility for several new perfections.

The world is an interplay of a multiplicity of free forces. The forces do play upon, affect, determine one another, but that determination is always partial. This partiality of determination by others is exactly the condition that leaves room for, and actually elicits, the self-determination of each individual.

Whitehead shows how meaning is built up in the world of nature. The past offers its accumulated actuality and projected possibility to each newly forming event. The new event exercises a freedom of self-determination regarding itself, taking into account the entire past, but reinterpreting its immanent predecessors.

Whitehead never completely applies his insights into nature to the human condition. For instance, there is a quality of evil in human life that is not approximated in natural evils. There are qualities of stability and responsibility in human life that are not explained fully by Whitehead. His doctrine of the immanence of one event within another does not adequately explain how a present subject can be responsible for past acts that are "objectively immortal" in it.

Whiteheadians might wish that Whitehead had developed the theme of decision or commitment or dedication in the detail in which he showed how similar feelings are passed on in a strand of actual occasions (AI 183). Whiteheadians are left with the problem as to how to handle decisions in series, decisions as they revise and reshape one another in a temporal line. Such a series of decisions, one building upon the other, is what a commitment would be. Earlier acts of decisiveness would serve as a sedimentation upon which later ones might repose. The ever-present condition of a newly forming top layer would supply ambiguity to the accumulated archaeology of stratified decisions.

Merleau-Ponty has an approach to the world and to nature that is much like Whitehead’s. Merleau-Ponty carefully balances the past and present, determinations by others and self-determination, with his notions of sedimentation and spontaneity. Careful study of Whitehead’s ideas on immanence and the decision each new event contains will show the same structure and intention as the approach of Merleau-Ponty.

When this illuminating comparison is achieved, a Whiteheadian doctrine of commitment can be articulated, which will also be faithful to Merleau-Ponty. A Whiteheadian concern for present responsibility for a person’s past acts can also be articulated. Generally, the notions of sedimentation and ambiguity will be borrowed from Merleau-Ponty to supplement Whitehead, while the notions of decision and prehension will be taken from Whitehead to supplement Merleau-Ponty. When the necessary exchanges are made, a single Whiteheadian and Merleau-Pontian elaboration of commitment will be achieved.

The Actual Occasion: Atom of Ambiguity

In Whitehead, the universe is made up of miniscule events which come into and go out of existence in the same moment. Each one has its own meaning in a brief and ephemeral sense, but meaning in the ordinary sense is built up out of patterns of sense which emerge moment by moment in the course of a myriad of microevents happening and vanishing and passing on the meaning they briefly achieve.

Each one of Whitehead’s "actual occasions," or brief flickerings of existence, contributes its own meaning to the universe. Everything originates some contribution. Each also preserves in itself all the meanings of its actual world, that is, of the past of which it is the result and original retainer. It is because each "actual occasion" is host to several meanings and creator of its own meaning that the occasion is ambiguous. Each occasion is at once caused by the world that produced it and cause of an entirely new reconstruction of the world from its new and original perspective. Each occasion is an atom of ambiguity.

An "actual occasion" is, for Whitehead, an element in the environment which is objectively established as an influence upon others, a "stubborn fact." Each actual occasion has as its center a "decision" (PR 68) in virtue of which it has actualized itself. All the actual occasions in a person’s environment serve as stubborn facts or "transcendent decisions" in reference to a concrescing occasion, or an occasion presently in its own "immanent" decision-making process (PR 248f).

It is precisely as an atom of ambiguity that Whitehead’s actual occasion is an atom of adventure, the search for new perfections (AI 258). Since the highest achievement involves spontaneity and freshness of approach, here can be no static perfection.

Such spontaneity requires courage, daring, initiative. Perfection, insofar as it is not only preservative or backward-looking, but is more importantly prognosticative and forward-looking, involves adventure.

Every actual occasion is to some degree an adventurer. Its necessary originality insists on that. There is no adventurer that is not the product of its previous experiences, but neither is there an adventurer which is not the discoverer and inventor of a novel experience. Reality must be open, that is, it must be ambiguous, if every new instant is to be a birth of novelty and adventure.

In Whitehead, there are actually four phases in the process that each actual occasion is. The phases are: dative, process, satisfaction, and decision (anticipation) (PR 227). The dative phase has to do with the givenness of data from the world. The process phase has to do with the new values these data are given in the new situation. It is the very condition of ambiguity among the data that allows passage from the dative phase to the process phase.

The satisfaction phase has to do with the self-enjoyment of each actual occasion (AI 193). In this sense, the satisfaction phase is consummatory and should not be confused with the dative and process phases. It is once again the condition of ambiguity in the universe and in the construction of each occasion that allows a new situation to come about with its own private and consummatory enjoyment.

In its phase of decision, each occasion passes itself over for "transition" (PR 322) into a novel occasion, realizes its own hope to be retained and to be retained with particular importance in some new occasion. The occasion here relishes its instrumentality in the formation of its successors. With decision is generated hope, and this hope, without the possibility of totally determining how it shall affect another, is exactly what ambiguity would mean in a Whiteheadian sense.

The process of an actual occasion begins with a centripetal relation to its environment. The environment flows in upon it in a determining way, and it passively receives what the world offers; its own importance is satellite to the world’s importance. Then, it takes a stand of its own, deciding how the world shall affect it, taking the centrifugal place of importance, with all other occasions revolving about its own decision. Finally, it offers itself to the world in its private completeness, allowing itself to become centripetal in import once again.

The actual occasion or actual entity takes a distinctive attitude toward each of the data which are its objects. There is a uniqueness to the way in which each particular subject prehends each of its particular objects. This unique perspective of subject upon object is its "subjective form" (PR 35), or particular affective tonality with reference only to this object as apprehended by this subject. One subject draws in a myriad of data in its instantaneous flicker of subjectivity, and in that instant, each morsel of data is assigned its own subjective form.

The actual occasion, insofar as it is a past occasion, is ambiguous with reference to a present occasion, that is, it supports several meanings for the present one. The fact that the "subjective form" assigned to a past entity by a present entity in prehension is variable testifies to this basic condition of ambiguity of past occasions with reference to present ones.

The novel occasion may not be characterized as an atom of ambiguity as easily as the past occasion. The occasion’s core of decisiveness cuts off all ambiguity in an act of ultimate determination. It is only as in the past of others, or "for others," that an occasion is both a stubborn fact and an ambiguous entity, open to interpretation by subjective forms that future entities will assign to it.

The process doctrine of actual entity extends the notion of body to all the occasions in the universe. Each actual entity is a material experient, a body-subject, a psychosomatic occasion, a world-related organism which is part of the world as a general field of interconnected meanings. Whitehead generalizes for all entities the conditions that obtain for human bodies in phenomenology. The nature of reality is disclosed in the description of the experiences of human subjects (PR 252).

The body and the world are so interrelated phenomenologically that one is always both source and receptacle of meanings with reference to the other. The body has its definition only with reference to its particular world; the world is the world it is only with reference to this body. Because meaning is placed mutually in the two poles of body and world, Merleau-Ponty refers to meaning as equally centripetal and centrifugal (PP 116, PMP 135). There is a sense in which the body is satellite to the world and a sense in which the world is satellite to the body.

The relation between an actual occasion and its actual world is acutely similar to the relationship between the human body and the world. There is a dialectical relationship of meanings of the world and meanings for the body. The body is also capable of perceiving itself as for the world and of respecting the world’s meanings as intrinsic to the world. The subject-object relationship is described both in Merleau-Ponty’s body-world relation and in Whitehead’s actual occasion-actual world relation.

Prehension: Molecule of Intentionality

Intentionality (PR xviii), in Merleau-Ponty, has to do with the state of affairs in which an object is always referred to a subject and a subject to an object. Prehension (PR 35), in Whitehead, is a like notion, in which each occasion exists to be prehended by another, and every prehended occasion is grasped in a way determined by the occasion which grasps it. Intentionality might be called the dynamic polarity in prehension; and prehension might be called a molecule of intentionality, or a physical case of subject-object relatedness.

The world is a world of relation and interrelatedness. The subject-object relation describes the world, and, with equal primordiality, phenomenologically speaking, the interrelatedness of human subjects describes the world (PP 359). Whitehead accounts for the interrelatedness of subject and object in the world in his doctrine of "prehension. This is his description of the world as completely composed of incidents of relatedness between actual occasions. Accordingly, every speck of matter is also a morsel of mind, an incident of subject-object relatedness.

A prehension has several elements: an actual entity which is felt or prehended by another entity; the entity which prehends the first actual occasion; and the "subjective form" (PR 338), or unique way in which the second occasion prehends the first one. So, in phenomenology, no subject would grasp an element in its world in a way exactly like the way in which another subject would grasp the same data. Every phenomenological subject would, therefore, describe its own world. In Whitehead, no two occasions would have the same "actual world" (PR 34), or manifold of elements converging upon its private moment of decisiveness.

Whitehead gives to Merleau-Ponty a cosmological way of interrelating the notions of ambiguity and intentionality. Intentionality is given a physical as well as psychic description in the doctrine of prehension, and ambiguity is given a material as well as mental description in the doctrine of actual occasion. Every occasion is a being for others as well as a being for itself. No other or combination of others can completely determine an occasion in its being for itself. Every being must take account of its own relatedness to other occasions in its environment.

Every occasion in the environment supplies to a new occasion a possibility for its own realization, and every possibility must somehow be taken into account. This presence of many possibilities is the very condition of ambiguity. The presence of possibilities in its environment coincides exactly with the process of drawing the environment into itself by prehension. Prehension is thus the dynamic by which intentionality operates. Intentionality rests upon ambiguity as the condition out of which prehension arises.

By correlating prehension and intentionality in this fashion and by referring to prehension as a molecule, we do not intend to imply that a prehension is bigger than an actual occasion. We need to remind ourselves that for Whitehead the prehension is a part or a function of an actual occasion and that the actual occasion is inclusive of its prehension. However, prehension is the category in Whitehead that is responsible to describe the subject-object relation, which is also an object-object relation and the relation between two occasions. In this last sense the prehension compares favorably to the molecule.

Eventually, we might expect that the two philosophers will explain freedom in similar terms. Freedom must be an occasion’s resolution of its ambiguous situation, a freedom for self-determination among many codeterminants, and a freedom exercised in relation to and respect for several codeterminants. Freedom is intentional, is a freedom for something (PP 437), freedom toward a novel possibility. Freedom is something demanded by an ambiguous environment and something that arises in individual privacy to become responsible to the external world.

If the body has a freedom to select among various possibilities for itself in its stance toward the world, that freedom rests upon the basic orientation of the body to the world. This basic orientation is not free for the body in the sense of being a condition dispensable for the body, but it is the necessary basis for the body’s freedom, as the body faces a world which offers it a variety of choices. There is a difference between the body’s overall and necessary disposition toward the world, and the body’s free self-disposing toward the plurality of possibilities in the world.

Whitehead’s Notion of Commitment

It is only in a discussion of this kind that the notion of commitment may be understood. Each occasion is committed to the data out of which it arises. It cannot change one iota the data given for retention. In the process of assigning values to the data, however, it can and must select the relevance of the various data to one another and to itself. This selection and assigning of values does not change an occasion’s commitment to its data, but is the only way in which it may be committed to its data. Part of being committed to certain things is to change the situation of those data and to construct oneself in relative appreciation of the data, assigning high values to some and low values to others. In any case, commitment does not mean mere preservation of a status quo, but the changing of what is retained for relevance in a new situation.

Each occasion is committed to the data out of which it arises. Each occasion is committed to reevaluate all of the data from which it comes. Each occasion is committed to itself, as having and being its own consummatory and self-enjoyed value. Each occasion is committed to the future as its free interpreter, retainer, and reevaluator. In this very last sense, each occasion is an adventurer, committed to a future in which it is sure of its retention, but not of the value of its contribution. This may be called a commitment to ambiguity. The very ambiguity that allows an occasion to arise, become, and enjoy itself also earmarks that occasion for reconsideration as to its value in the future.

Although we can articulate how ambiguity and how commitment structure each phase of the microscopic process by which an actual occasion realizes itself, we must also spell out just how ambiguity and commitment structure the macrocosmic process of commitment that structures ordinary experience, the moral life, social existence, responsibility for our past acts.

If we examine only a single actual occasion, we observe the data flowing in and the original synthesis being formed. What is most impressive here is the spontaneity in which this pulse of energy occurs. What cannot be observed, however, is the discipline of the universe, the obedience of an occasion to patterns built up for it before itself. In the human body especially, there are habits of behavior that cannot be appreciated in the examination of only one human act.

Only when we have a series of occasions, which series has a corporate identity which transcends the identity of any of its members, but which each of its members inclusively realizes at the moment of its actualization, can we have the ordinary experience of commitment. Commitment as a phenomenon has to do with why one occasion respects a pattern set for it by another occasion. Commitment has to do with an occasion’s spontaneous self-patterning according to the model set for it in a previous occasion.

Commitment, as a word, is not often found in Whitehead, and yet, we must recognize the presence and importance of the notion of commitment. The Anglo-American sees man in a situation in which many things are decided for him by others. This Whitehead calls transcendent decision (PR 248). There are also decisions that each person makes for himself: these are called immanent decisions. By his or her immanent decisions, each person decides not whether, but how, the transcendent decisions present in the situation will affect him or her.

A Whiteheadian notion of commitment concerns transcendent decisions, or decisions made for an individual prior to the individual’s self-determination. It also deals with immanent decisions, or decisions made by the individual, determining itself and its surrounding world. Thus, there is an inner and an outer aspect to decision-making, the externalizing of inner decisiveness and the internalizing of outer decisiveness.

Whitehead writes that "concernedness is of the essence of perception" (AI 232). He explains that what we experience are not bare sensa, devoid of contribution by the percipient. Experience always has an affective tone or interpretation of the perceiver, without which sensa do not occur. The entire field of perception influences each thing perceived. Concernedness would be the subjective contribution to experience. Every layer of sediment in experience would have its concernedness stubbornly inscribed in it, but each layer would also invite novel concernedness in the spontaneous forming of new layers.

"Adventure," the "search for new perfections" (AI 258) must be placed in context as one of several qualities giving definition to civilization. "Civilization" is the "unremitting aim at the major perfections of harmony" (AI 271). Civilization exhibits the five qualities of Truth, Beauty, Adventure, Art, and Peace. Adventure is an essential attribute of civilization, and civilization is the name of the supreme value to which Whitehead is dedicated, "ultimate good sense" (MT 238).

Commitment or some kindred notion should be included among the chief qualifiers of civilization. The vigor of civilized societies is "preserved by the wide-spread sense that high aims are worth while" (AI 288). Keeping its aims and keeping those aims high are crucial matters to civilization. It is also true that art and poetry, with their ability to inspire, are more important than morality. Zest and interest are of more importance than dull truths or inert ideas. The language of unremitting aims, of keeping aims high, and the treatment of civilization as ultimate good sense, are all instances of a language of commitment.

A Whiteheadian treatment of commitment must be one charged with adventure, just as a Merleau-Pontian treatment of ambiguity would have to be one fired in freedom. In Whitehead, adventure is that factor by which civilization moves forward. It is the restlessness by which the universe tires of perfections it has already achieved and leans forward to acquire new perfections. Adventure is the probative, tentative, restless quality of civilization. Adventure requires ambiguity as a residual slackness, necessary if civilization is to extend itself out of the past and into the future.

Columbus set out to discover a new route to the Orient; what he actually did discover was America. Columbus’ relation to the world was that of a discoverer, an adventurer, but his specific discovery was quite different than the one he originally intended. There was an absoluteness to his commitment as an explorer of new worlds and an ambiguity about which new world he would discover (AI 279).

Adventure, in Whitehead, is the atmosphere in which decisions are made. Adventure means, first of all, a sense of the future, and the sense a present event enjoys of its relevance for the future. Man is ever creating a future for himself and for the universe, because he is always projecting possibilities of arrangement, selection, or valuation which are not there before his presence as a decider.

Ambiguity: Necessary Condition for Adventure

In Merleau-Ponty life is an adventure because it is ambiguous. The many meanings or facets of meaning that a situation involves are not statically present and interpenetrating, but they generate new meanings, new moments of time. Ambiguity means an openness to the future and the sense that a present situation is not complete now, but requires interpretation by events and situations that issue from it, that look back upon it and thereby bring it forward to new meanings it could only presage in its own presentness.

Merleau-Ponty has recourse to Husserl’s doctrine of retentions and pretensions (PP 69, 416) to show how meaning grows and to show therewith his appreciation of the forward-looking and -moving quality of ambiguity. Each present moment retains its content as that content has developed though time. Each moment could only be what it is as the result of a process by which preceding moments have retained and reinterpreted contents which are now retained again in a novel way.

Similarly, each moment tends forward or portends toward possibilities in which it might be favorably retained, appreciating the conditions by which it will not remain exactly what it is, but by which it must change in order to be relevant in the future.

Every situation is ambiguous for Merleau-Ponty, because every situation is only partially determined, and requires the self-determination of the conscious subject of that situation. Every subject is a body, and as such is ambiguous; here ambiguity means that my body is both myself and the position from which I perceive others, and the body is also the objective "me" which others perceive. As both perceiver and perceived, the body is ambiguous.

Further, everything is ambiguous because it is not set in a hard and fast way. Rather, everything has a possibility for change, various ways in which it could be different in the future. Each thing supports not one but several meanings. The presence of a plurality of meaning or of possible meanings is exactly what ambiguity is. The body is ambiguous because it is myself, the "I" that perceives and gives meaning to others, and the "me" that is perceived and given meaning by others.

For Merleau-Ponty, all the elements in an environment influence a person in some way, but a person’s subjective attitude toward the elements conditions those elements, and the person’s decision about his environment feeds back into the environment in such a way that the surrounding world would not be the world it is without the conditioning subjectivity of the surrounded decider.

The world, for Merleau-Ponty, is always a person’s environment. It is always a subjectively conditioned world, just as it is always also a stubbornly objective world. The world is not accessible, except through the subjectivity which is ever part of the world. The atomic elements of the world in Whitehead, the actual occasions (PR 33), are also psychosomatic in an irreducible way, unbreakable atoms whose stubbornness is always taken account of by an interpreting and deciding presence. The presence to itself of each atomic entity is also a subjectivity, even on the most primitive levels of life.

"Existence," for an existentialist and phenomenologist, is life as it is attributable only to human subjects (PP 166), because subjectivity is presumed only to be found in human persons. For a Whiteheadian cosmologist, existence, precisely in the existentialist sense, can be attributed to every level of life, no matter how primitive. Whitehead finds subjectivity in all occasions, placing the basic elements of existence in molecules and mountains in the same sense that Sartre or Merleau-Ponty attribute it to men and women -- in the sense that there is a trivial but true level of subjectivity, of feeling, of decision, in all occasions.

According to Merleau-Ponty, there obtains on the human level of life an ambiguity whereby everything perceived is perceived as a possibility for the perceiver. An object is perceived according to a possibility it has for a human subject, or a possibility a subject has for it. Anything perceived is an article for use in the future. As a use-object, it may in its turn be discarded or recycled in favor of some later possibility. This situation, in which the body is committed to using objects, lives ever among such commitments and yet is ever revising these commitments, is ambiguity (PMP 138).

There are several dimensions to ambiguity in Merleau-Ponty. There is an ambiguous relation of the body to the world, whereby one is always referred to the other. There is an ambiguous relation of the body to itself as both subject and object. Meaning is always ambiguous, since it is generated concomitantly by the body which projects it and by the object in the world which supports it.

Ambiguity, in Merleau-Ponty, is the situation in which decisions are made. Ambiguity refers to the situation in which the world gives meanings to man and in which man projects his meanings upon the world. Man, situated ambiguously, is always a decider, discovering meanings in the world as he projects. himself into it, and discovering his own meaning by accepting or resisting the meanings that are projected upon him by the world.

Ambiguity means, most basically, that the same event or condition has many meanings; the many possibilities of meaning give rise to the decision. Adventure has to do with the quest of new perfections. Ambiguity and adventure suppose one another. Ambiguity is found as the condition of the world when the world is found to support new meanings as well as old ones. Adventure rests upon the possibility of things having several meanings to which new ones might be added, or which might be rearranged in novel orders of importance.

The world of adventure and the world of ambiguity are the same world. A summary of Merleau-Ponty’s treatment of ambiguity points to Whitehead’s notion of adventure: (i) the irreducible polarity of body-world as the ultimate scheme of existence; (ii) the irreducibility of perception to either pole of the body-world schema; (iii) the affirmation of freedom as both centripetal and centrifugal. Like meaning, freedom arises from both poles of the existential situation. The body projects a space or field in which it can move freely, and the world offers possibilities or alternatives for which the body can be free.

Sedimentation: Structure or Commitment

"Sedimentation" is a term often used by Merleau-Ponty. It has to do with the way in which past experience is related to present experience. The French phenomenologist writes of spontaneity and sedimentation together, as the two stages of world-structure at the core of consciousness (PP 130). He holds together the present act of a body-subject as spontaneous and the past acts of the body-subject as sedimented in the present act.

Sedimentation is a notion applied to language (PrP 89), to the history of art (PrP 61), to history generally (PrP 63), and to truth (PrP 96). In language, it relates to all the past applications of a word which condition and give rise to a new and spontaneous usage of a word. In painting, it has to do with the way in which the history of art conditions each new painting and how each new painting overcomes and embodies all of its past.

There are other areas of Merleau-Ponty’s work in which he might have used sedimentation but did not. He might have used it in his description of time; indeed, when he speaks of truth, he says that it has to do with how the past is enfleshed in the present. He might have used it in his description of habit, for there, the body builds up attitudes of motility that enlarge the body-schema and facilitate the body-world relationship (PrP xix).

Sedimentation explains habits. Patterns of behavior in the present are products of past experiences (PMP 136). Phenomenology is interested in the residual tendencies or attitudes left in organisms by their past experiences. Process philosophy sees those past experiences themselves as structuring the skeleton of present occurrences. Habitual behavior is explained as history immanent in novelty. New moments, spontaneous and free, rest upon and root into the strata of former incidents of decisiveness. Habits are good or bad according to the way in which the strata are regarded: either as stabilizing a desirable tendency or as lending momentum to an undesirable attitude.

Most behavior is habitual. Pure spontaneity in behavior is extremely rare. Indeed, in the theory of phenomenology or of process, completely inhabited behavior is impossible. Insofar as behavior is always within a world of surrounding meanings, it is always conditioned (but never totally) by internal and external determining factors. Habits have both internal and external poles. Something external serves as stimulus to a response originating internally. Habits have an inner-outer, subject-object structure; they are relational attitudes of a body toward a world (PP 143).

A body is its habits. For Merleau-Ponty, the body is a complex of original attitudes toward the world. The body is both psychic and somatic, an irreducible unity of the two. As such, the body both gives meaning to and receives meaning from the world of which it is part. Meaning is always bodily and is never reducibly mental or material. Such dualism is methodically excluded by phenomenological description. This is precisely the error of bifurcation (PR 443) rejected by Whitehead.

Ambiguity does not reside only at the top of the sedimentary layers. It is shot through all the layers at every moment. A newly forming layer, a novel act in a habitual pattern, does not reserve its spontaneity completely to itself, but it spontaneously reevaluates all the layers it contains. It cannot eliminate a layer, but it can make the contributions of some layers trivial and the contribution of others massive. In every new act, the relative valuations of the layers will be different. As data, the layers will be retained if they are in the past of an occasion, but as values, these layers will undergo change constantly with the adding of each new layer.

Commitment is a notion found in both Whitehead and Merleau-Ponty. In the Frenchman, man always finds himself committed to a particular situation and invited to change that situation in some way. At the same time, the decision that alters the situation also alters the decider. There is free play in the field of living that man’s situation is, and decision is ever elicited of man. Even a decision to avoid the possibility of deciding something is itself a decision.

In both philosophers the factors in the environment which affect us are looked upon as decisions. The human decider is first of all a decider about the arrangement of many other decisions, which in fact he or she does not make. It is precisely in the situation of having many decisions made for us that we as deciders make our own decisions.

In general, it may be said that Merleau-Ponty’s treatment of commitment establishes: (i) the absolute commitment of the body to the world and of the world to the body, as the overarching schema of all perception and of all experience; (ii) the relative, reversible, and replaceable commitments in virtue of which the body realizes its absolute commitment. Merleau-Ponty does not discuss the ever-shifting hierarchy, of relative commitments as a scale ascending to and embodying the absolute commitment.

Whitehead’s Immanence

Sedimentation would translate into Whiteheadian parlance as immanence. Immanence is the condition whereby every entity is present in some other entity. Because no entity vanishes unprehended by some succeeding entity, all entities become immanent in their successors as soon as they actualize themselves. As such they become a real, physical past, intrinsically constituting the present occasion which bears them as parts of itself.

Each event is originally a present event which as present takes up its own inalienable position (PMP 128). The event then recedes into the past where it is seen through the accumulating thickness of subsequently experienced events. This description of events could equally well belong to Whitehead or to Merleau-Ponty; it describes the immanence whereby the Anglo-American would see one event lying within its predecessor, or it describes the sedimentation by which time layers itself out, event by event, experience by experience.

"Endurance," for Whitehead, concerns the building up of several experiences in such a way that one lies immanent in the other (AI 204). This notion compares to sedimentation in Merleau-Ponty, a notion that sees each new action layered upon a residue of past foundational strata, sometimes hindering the new from actualizing all of its novelty, sometimes facilitating the new by laying down a habit by which its performance is made easy.

In the way that each occasion actualizes and objectifies itself, it takes into account its own future. Part of every occasion is its legacy given to the world, and its inner hope of being taken account of by its successors in a particular way. It hopes to be sedimented in its successors in such a way as to have its most prized feelings reiterated or its most regretted feelings anesthetized. How it shall be stratified in a new structure is a concern to every micro-subject. Inscribed in each occasion is this tendency to perpetuate itself and its feelings, a tendency to habit. To this tendency all pattern in the universe must ultimately be ascribed.

A Whiteheadian appreciation of Merleau-Ponty’s sedimentation would tell of the way one occasion becomes immanent in another, of how an occasion that has outlived its own moment of spontaneity is retained in a novel occasion which values the presence and contribution of the former occasion by structuring itself in a similar way. The bodily habit is both a presently spontaneous movement and a residual readiness or potential for moving or acting in such a way.

Especially in Whitehead’s "enduring object" or "living person, patterns of continuity that are ever revised in new spontaneous moments are of crucial importance. The ambiguity between the continuity of the past and the spontaneity of the present is the life of every occasion. The sediment of the past is ever ready to receive upon itself a new layer. In each novel act of habit, the sedimentary layers become one and are increased by one. Ambiguity ceases for an instant in the coming to be of a novel occasion with its novel layer of sediment and immediately is regenerated as that occasion perishes and yet remains as superject.

The notion of immanence in Whitehead can profit greatly by being supplemented by the idea of sedimentation in Merleau-Ponty. While Whitehead has dealt adequately with the presence of one entity within another, he has given the impression to some that there is only a minimal impact of the past upon the present (Reality 207-17). This would reduce the importance of habit and of continuity; immanence would tend to become a mere physical inheritance without an important buildup of pattern and of responsibility in action, which pattern and responsibility would reside as habit even when not actively engaged.

Immanence cannot be the mere presence of one occasion of experience within another, but must be the readiness to act in a patterned way on the basis of this attitudinal residue. Whitehead’s notion of immanence needs to be fully explicated if it is to be applied to social and moral questions, and this can be accomplished if it is brought into dialogue with Merleau-Ponty’s notion of sedimentation.

In Whitehead, immanence explains personal identity. A person has his or her identity by the sequential immanence of one dominant actual occasion within another. Each new occasion along a personal strand of occasions is a spontaneous existence which contains as sediment in itself all the personal occasions of its past. Insofar as each personal occasion is at its center a decision which creates itself and uniquely restructures its world, the personal strand of occasions is a sequence of decisions which are "internal" to one another, i.e., the new spontaneous decision rests upon a sediment of past decisions which are "immanent" in it.

Such an ever-mounting immanence or sedimentation of occasions, and therefore of decisions, affords a description of commitment. A commitment is a strand of personal decisions, corresponding to the strand of personal occasions in a human life. Commitment involves the immanence of the past in the present novel decision now in the making; as such it requires sediment and spontaneity. The important decisions of any life are not existentially intelligible as isolated incidents of self-determination, but as historically decided occasions in which the history itself is incarnated.

Between the atomic events of actuality and the sedimented layers of past experience, there abides the crucial climate of ambiguity. If there is to be the adventure of moving from one moment, from one layer of strata, to the next, there must be space for the incursion of new possibility, a condition of indeterminateness inviting new determination.

Whitehead’s notion of decision as part of the life of every occasion in the universe is needed by Merleau-Ponty to explain how ambiguity is momentarily resolved by every entity and therefore by the human subject. Ambiguity immediately becomes the condition of the universe again, but in the private recess of each newly forming event of experience, ambiguity is resolved in an atomic event. Ambiguity and decision need to be brought into sharp contrast in terms of one another. Sometimes in human experience ambiguity is cut off abruptly and decisions are made. Yet we need to understand why these moments of decisiveness rapidly evaporate back into ambiguity.

Commitments in Conflict

Sometimes the larger identity of an entity in the series in which it stands comes into conflict with the smaller identity of an entity with itself or with some particular entity or entities in the strand. In the process of identifying itself with the chain of entities in which it stands, an occasion finds itself identifying more with some entities than with others. Eventually, succeeding occasions, inheriting the conflict, may share as their dominant characteristic a trait of a comparatively small number of members of the strand. A trend for the future of the series is set in which the original defining characteristic, while still in some lesser way characteristic of the series, is no longer the dominant trait. A new defining characteristic now sets the future trend.

Merleau-Ponty handles this problem of a shift in commitment in a way which a Whiteheadian will accept. There is, first of all, a backdrop or general commitment upon which all other commitments rest. This most basic commitment is the commitment of the body to the world. It is in favor of this general commitment to the world that a body may disengage itself from one commitment and engage itself to a new commitment (PMP 138). It is to be expected that almost every life will experience at some time the need to withdraw from a particular project in order to serve its more general project and that then it might enlist itself in a novel project which more adequately realizes its larger intention.

Divorce serves as an example. Divorce is a civilized institution. It is not the brutal rejection of one marriage partner for another. Not without its pain and struggle, it is the putting away of one marriage partner by another in such a formal way as to allow both to remarry. The commitment to marriage itself as a value is still present as the more general commitment against which alone the divorce can be meaningful. If marriage itself were not a value, there would be no meaning in releasing a partner for remarriage. Divorce upholds the dignity of marriage as an institution, while it allows the shift of one particular commitment for another. Less dramatically, the changing from one major to another on the part of a college student would involve the same dynamic.

Profound change in a human life requires a change in sedimentation. The matrix of meaning in life alters its configuration. Old habits are shattered, and new ones come to replace them. Even so, the old habits are somehow retained in the new ones. An athlete who retires and becomes a sports journalist alters his lifestyle, but his old patterns of life are the foundation of his new ones. A divorced person who has carefully worked through a first marriage may become a better partner in a second marriage because of the first.

Knowing how shifts of commitment occur will have the practical outcome of helping those who are undergoing shifts of commitment. All shifts of commitment should be recognized for what they are early on in the transition process. Some shifts of commitment can then be prevented, if maintenance of the original commitment is desirable. Other shifts may be facilitated. Delays and detours may temporarily be arranged until more data is in or more clarity is reached.

The importance of commitment is here radicalized. The person is a commitment, as a series of sedimented decisions, a series of mutually immanent occasions. The person is an accumulated subjectivity. Perceptions and decisions are accumulated until a life becomes an immanent package of meaning with its own inner directionality. Personal life is necessarily a life of commitment, because it is metaphysically a life of commitment -- a person is a bundle of co-interpreting decisions.

A commitment is not an old decision to be slavishly held to, but a continuing series of decisions, including a new decision in each instant which more or less responsibly interprets all the former ones. The new decision must make sense of the old ones the best it can as it moves along through novel conditions of ambiguity with new data and new possibilities. Too tenaciously held to, an old decision can deplete life of its adventure, rendering a person "uncivilized" in Whitehead’s sense. Such a non-life would be all sedimentation and no spontaneity in the terms of Merleau-Ponty.



PMP -- John Bannon. The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1967.

PP -- Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. New York: The Humanities Press, 1962.

PrP -- Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The Primacy of Perception. Translated by James M. Edie and others. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

Reality -- Paul Weiss. Reality. New York: Peter Smith, 1949.

1. Bernard Meland. "Can Empirical Theology Learn Something from Phenomenology?" in The Future of Empirical Theology, ed. Bernard Meland. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969.

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