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Process, Creativity, and Technology: Reflections on The Uncertain Phoenix

by Peter Limper

Peter Limper is Associate Professor of Humanities at Christian Brothers College, Memphis, Tennessee. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 275-289, Vol. 15, Number 4, Winter, 1986. 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 two recent works, The Uncertain Phoenix and Eros and Irony, David L. Hall presents a systematic and radical critique of the Western cultural and philosophical tradition, and (in The Uncertain Phoenix) a provocative vision of a future which might result front a movement away from certain aspects of that tradition. Hallís perspective, with its strong emphasis on the notion of creativity, shows the influence both of Whiteheadian concepts and ideas from Chinese (particularly Taoist) thought. In The Uncertain Phoenix he describes his procedure as follows: "We are attempting, by recourse to Eastern sources, to construct a creationist paradigm that may be employed to interpret the nature and direction of contemporary Western culture. In so doing we shall begin with the Whiteheadian concept of creativity and adjust it in the direction of Eastern process views" (UP 212).

Like a number of other recent thinkers, Hall holds that "[t]he phenomenon that has come to he called Ďtechnological societyí is the single given that affects every significant element of our cultural milieu" (UP 297). Much of The Uncertain Phoenix comprises an account of the intellectual and cultural background, present status, and possible future of technological society. The following discussion will focus on this aspect of the book. I shall first summarize Hallís main ideas relating to technology and technological society and then offer a critique of a number of those ideas and of some related aspects of his thought, including his use of certain process concepts.

A good place to begin the exposition is with Hallís discussion of the role which the idea of "chaos" has played in Western thought. He notes that Western creation myths are accounts of the overcoming or "disciplining" of primordial chaos (UP 52-59, cf. EI 11f.). Chaos is seen negatively, as "disorder, confusion," as "non-rational . . . an-archic" (UP 53). Hall contrasts this view with the more positive image of chaos which he finds in Eastern thought, as "undifferentiated homogeneity . . . the sum of all orders" (UP 255). For the Western mind, however, chaos is that which must be rationalized by means of "determining sources of order," principles or archai (UP 53).

In the most familiar Western creation myth, that of Genesis, God establishes this order by an act of will or command. God thus has complete power or control over his creation. "But this control is qualified by the fact that man was made Godís Ďdeputy.í As such, nature is an object of manís control as well. He must establish power over it" (UP 86). Hall thus joins a number of other thinkers in seeing in the Genesis myth a primordial source of the characteristic Western attitude toward nature, an attitude which stresses power, control, domination.1 This attitude, in turn, is seen as essentially determinative of our view of technological activity, and indeed of the entire Western notion of action. "Action turns out, ultimately, to be only a sublimation of labor, which advertises its origins in the enmity between persons and nature" (UP 236).

Hall asserts that "[o]ur cultural self-understanding is dominated by the conception of imposed order. And if this is so, reason cannot be seen as a means of passively entertaining an antecedent order; rather, it must be seen as rationalization, the production of order, and as control, the maintenance of order" (UP 106; cf. El 44-46).2 Thus he agrees with those philosophers who see a link between our desire to achieve a rational understanding of nature and our drive to control or dominate nature by means of technology.

With Nietzsche I would claim that all knowledge is open to critique in terms of its motivation toward control. With Scheler I would assert an internal connection between knowledge and the growth of the contemporary technological forms of domination. And with Heidegger I would claim that the end of our traditional forms of knowledge realized in terms of technology signals the beginning of a new cultural, or perhaps post-cultural, sensibility. (UP 111)

Modern scientific-technological understanding is instrumental understanding, a fulfillment of the Baconian dictum that "knowledge is power" (UP 232). Although he sees this as a working out of a tendency rooted in the fundamental nature of Western thought and culture, Hall regards it as a serious distortion of the proper function of knowledge.

The fundamental aim of knowing is the enjoyment of the immediate intuitive grasp occasioned by the theoretic attitude. Such enjoyment is intrinsic to the attitude itself. Action, on the other hand, is a means toward the achievement of greatness. It cannot constitute the dispassionate application of theoretic knowledge to experience. . . . [T]he union of [theory and practice], occasioned by the fusion of science and technology, has perverted the aims of both knowledge and action. (UP 232f.)

To understand this claim fully, we must look more closely at Hallís views on both "knowledge" and "action."

As the preceding passage suggests, Hall regards knowing in the original and fundamental sense as contemplative enjoyment. Such knowing he refers to as theorial, a term which (at least as Western thought has developed) is to be contrasted with theoretical.

Theoria is the source of all knowledge and theory. In the West we have, largely because of our identification of our "source" with an action of creation that established the beginning of time, viewed our origin as a point from which to progress. The movement from theoria to theory, which has as its goal nothing less than the complete rationalization of experience, is one consequence of this identification. (UP 244)

"Theory" in the sense that the term is used here is again to be identified with the instrumental or controlling use of reason; that is to say, it designates the use of reason that has become allied with action. Now the Western concept of action is for Hall doubly problematic. Not only is it associated, as a previously quoted passage asserts, with the drive to dominate nature which can be traced back to the Hebraic creation myth, but it also reflects the "agonal spirit of the Greeks," the aim "at the attainment of individual greatness" (UP 236).

Hall finds support for his claim that theoria and technological practice, contemplative knowledge and action as the quest for greatness, should be sharply distinguished and separated, in Whiteheadís distinction (in The Function of Reason) between the speculative and practical uses of reason, the reason of Plato and the reason of Ulysses (UP 231; cf. FR Chapter 2). He also contrasts the Western concepts of knowledge (in the instrumental or practical sense) and action with ideas derived from Taoist thought. The Taoist ideal of knowledge is wu-chih, a notion which Hall associates with his idea of contemplative or theorial knowledge. Wu-chih is "no-knowledge," "unprincipled" knowing, a sense of being at one with the "intrinsic natures" of things rather than an imposition upon them of theoretical structures or archai (UP 246-48). Hall discusses the concept together with that of wu-wei, "non-assertive action," a notion which "suggests spontaneous actions in accordance with the natures of things." He contrasts this ideal with the Western "identification of action with acts of will" (UP 248). He also refers to a third Taoist concept, wu-yu.

Wu-yu is the concept of objectless desire, which is the subjective form of feeling associated with instances of wu-chih and wu-wei. Together, [these] three notions . . . articulate the differences between the notion of creativity and the correlative concept of power with which it has often been confused in Western thinking. (UP 249)

As we shall see, the contrast between an understanding in terms of power and one based on the concept of creativity plays an important role in Hallís discussion of the future of technological society.

Hall describes a "popular Taoist tale that well illustrates a negative attitude toward material technology." In the story, a farmer refuses to use a "well-sweep" (hardly a piece of high technology!) to help him irrigate his garden plots, on the grounds that "cunning contrivances" lead to "cunning hearts," and thus to a soul in which "Tao will not dwell" (UP 320). Hall associates this attitude with that of "gnostic" critiques of technology such as that of Theodore Roszak.

The essence of the gnostic sensibility is the appeal to traditional wisdom against the claims of science, and the stress upon the "spiritual," or internal, as opposed to "material," or external, technologies. The emergence of the gnostic sensibility suggests the beginnings of a revolt against contemporary forms of technology. (UP 321)

However, although Hall is clearly sympathetic to much in the "gnostic sensibility" as thus characterized (cf. UP 336-46), and although, as we have seen, he regards modern technology as the manifestation of a tendency in Western thought and culture of which he is highly critical, he does not himself recommend "a revolt against contemporary forms of technology," at least as that phrase would ordinarily be understood. To see the reasons for this is to begin to grasp the distinctive nature of Hallís own view of the future of technological society.

In the first place, Hall decries what he calls the "Pelagian Fallacy" with regard to technology. This is the fallacy of thinking that we are in fact free to determine or shape the future of technological society. This belief is "dangerously and pathetically naive. We could be free. Indeed, in the future, we shall again be free. At present, however, we are compelled by forces that no one understands toward the realization of a future that can in no real sense be of our choosing" (UP 311). The illusion of freedom, Hall thinks, simply causes us needless anxiety and guilt as we await the inevitable working out of the tendencies inherent in our present cultural situation. This view is neither as pessimistic nor as fatalistic as it may seem at first. Although Hall speaks in the just-quoted passage of "forces that no one understands," he says elsewhere that the whole of his discussion in The Uncertain Phoenix is "an attempt at cultural self-understanding" (UP 416). That self-understanding involves the vision of a possible future which Hall regards as hopeful and as providing for a resolution of some at least of the dilemmas of contemporary technological society. Furthermore, while I think that Hall genuinely means to say that we cannot and should not strive to bring this future about, I believe that he is suggesting that an imaginative projection of such a possibility can itself he a positive factor in the present.3

What is this "hopeful" vision of the future? Surprisingly, it involves not the containment or "humanization" of material technology, but the full working out of its potentialities. Like Jacques Ellul, Hall holds that "[t]echnology obeys hut one rule, the rule of efficiency, and that "[t]he history of technological development shows itself to he the sort of accretive, self-augmenting process that aims ultimately at perfection, which must he construed as complete rationalization, complete order" (UP 304). It is only the fulfillment of this process, the realization of this aim, that can solve our present material and environmental dilemmas. A fully "efficient" and "rational" technology will not waste resources or pollute the environment; nor need it require of human beings demanding and unpleasant labor or the sort of regimentation characteristic of so much of contemporary society. Indeed, Hall suggests, a fully developed technology will require almost nothing at all of human beings, not even their participation in its operation or control. "Control will not be our responsibility, but will be imminently Ďdecidedí by the necessities of efficiency and rational order" (UP 327). A self-sustaining, self-regulating technological order will represent the final development of a process of "objectification" or "externalization" of reason, ". . . which means, literally, the precipitation of reason into the Outside. And the story of the continuing evolution of human beings can only be told with that fact in mind; the fact that . . . reason has fulfilled itself in the practical sphere, in the sphere of external technology" (UP 358).

But does not this idea of the ultimate development and expression of technological rationality suggest a future in which human beings, as well as the natural environment, will be subject to complete "rational" control in the name of "efficiency," the future of Brave New World if not of 1984? Hall acknowledges that this is a possibility, but he does not think that it is the only possibility.

It would be too much of a good thing if we tried to internalize the objective structures of technology. To do so would be to create rational beings, hut we must at some point recognize that the story of human experience is not the story of reason alone. In evolutionary terms it is the story of the realization of balanced intensity of experience. Reason has played its role to be sure. But in the narrow sense of rationality and technical reasoning, its function seems to be abating. Externalized technique can take over the rational activities of human beings, freeing the organism of the brain to integrate, co-ordinate, and enhance more complex and more intense types of experience. The internalization of behavioral technique would turn persons inside out, leaving no future internal possibilities. (UP 358)

This passage has been quoted at length because it expresses the essence of Hallís "eutopic vision." If we can avoid the dangers of environmental devastation or global warfare brought about by the megalomaniacal pursuit of technological power, and the almost equally dreary prospect of a world of persons controlled by behavioral engineers in the name of technological rationality, we may move into a future in which the pursuit of power and rational order gives way to the cultivation of "intensities of experience."

Here, of course, we see the strong influence of process thought (both Western and Eastern) on Hallís vision. The future he hopes for is one which is informed not by the "rationalist" paradigm which has been dominant in Western culture since its beginnings, but by what he calls the "creationist" paradigm. (See the quotation in the first paragraph of this article.) Specifically, Hall wishes to emphasize the self-creativity of each individual as the locus of meaning and value. Like Whitehead, he sees individuals as "aesthetic events which are momentary, transitory, and in process (UP 214). He places strong emphasis on the freedom of such self-creative individuals, the fact that their natures are not determined by archai or principles of order external to themselves. At the same time, he resists the identification of freedom with that concept of action as the imposition of will, the exercise of power or control, which as we have seen he regards as an essential aspect of the contemporary scientific-technical approach. "For to identify freedom with activity suggests that actions over against nature are preferable to Ďactionsí in accordance with the flow of events" (UP 222). An essential element of Hallís novel vision of the future is the idea that once technology has been fully established as a self-governing, self-sustaining system, a sort of "automatic rationality" with which we need no longer concern ourselves, we will be free to turn away from "actions over against nature," to turn our attention "inward" to the sort of "actions" which enhance the aesthetic value of experience.

Hall characterizes this turn in various ways: as a shift in emphasis from "external technologies" to "internal technologies aimed at self-creativity" (UP 395; cf. 318-47), as the development of a "therapeutic society containing a plurality of techniques and practical reason in an aesthetic methodology" (UP 242). Some of the possibilities which he imagines are startling, to say the least (although it should be stressed that these speculations are put forward quite tentatively, and at times with a kind of playful and deliberate outrageousness). Thus he pictures a future in which the maintenance of distinctions between male and female has largely given way to the cultivation of androgynous personality aided by surgical and biochemical manipulation (UP 371-84); in which the notion of a substantial self enduring through time (and responsible for its actions) is superceded and "one is freed to be a career of selves strung out in time" (UP 390; cf. 384-97); in which the worship of a single all-powerful God has given way to the experiencing of a pantheon of "momentary deities" (UP 397-411)4 Morality in our sense will no longer have a place in Hallís "anarchic" world.

It may now be possible to forget what we have learned by eating of the forbidden fruit. We can forget the knowledge of Good and Evil, and return to the primordial innocence that once was ours. Reason and moral inhibition are the sources (as well as the consequences) of the development of the substantial self. (UP 391f.; cf. 396f.)

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Hall foresees an end to science as we now know it.

The first thing to notice about this reorganization [of all cultural interests] is that there is no place for what is currently termed "science." The scientific mode of perception has been realized, in principle, in the external technology that constitutes our material environment. . . . In place of science as the principle mode of knowledge we have religious intuition. (UP 399)

It must be emphasized that "religious intuition" as Hall uses the term is a kind of mystical sense of oneness with nature, closely associated with the Taoist ideal of wu-chih or knowledge in accordance with the natures of things, a sense of "human participation in" or "constatic unity" with nature (UP 400). Nevertheless, the prospect of a culture in which there is "no place for science" is one that will certainly disturb many readers, even those who may agree with much of Hallís critique of the contemporary union of science and technology.

Although Hallís views are sometimes surprising and even shocking, they deserve careful consideration. As has been noted in the preceding exposition, his concerns about technology and technological society have much in common with those expressed by such diverse thinkers as Ellul, Roszak, Mumford, Heidegger, and members of the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer, Marcuse, and others). Again and again in reading the works of these and other critics of the role of technology in the contemporary world, one comes upon the claim that at the core of the modern dilemma is the association of scientific and technological rationality with power, control, and domination -- where these are seen as operative both in the natural and social realms. This claim seems to me to be far more philosophically penetrating, and more disturbing, than the often-heard but more piecemeal criticisms of modern technologyís negative environmental, economic, or social-political consequences, or even the critique of present uses of technology as "inhumane" or contrary to basic human values. If, as Hall and others suggest, the flaw in technological society runs so deep in Western thought and culture, the solutions to our present difficulties (if any there be) must indeed be radical.

I think that Hallís distinctive version of this critique is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. His account of the relation of modern scientific and technological thought and practice to the drive to overcome "chaos" and establish a complete and "rational" order is subtle and convincing, and I think that his criticism of the over-emphasis on order and control in our culture is well-founded. I also agree with his assertion that in overemphasizing a narrow concept of rationality, we have tended to neglect the aesthetic dimension of experience and of thought, and to describe and evaluate the aesthetic in terms of rational and moral categories (see EI Chapter 1). I think that the insight, which Hall shares with Whitehead, that all value is finally grounded in immediately experienced "aesthetic" quality is profoundly important,5 and I believe that an increased emphasis on immediate experience and aesthetic value is essential for an adequate understanding and evaluation of modern technological society. Hallís attitude toward technology, though very critical, is not a shrill "anti-technological" diatribe, and his vision of a possible future sustained but not dominated by technology is a refreshing alternative to the pessimism of Ellul or the cryptic prognostications of Heidegger. At the same time, I have grave doubts about some aspects of his diagnosis of the contemporary dilemma, and even more about his projection of a supposedly hopeful future. The doubts are associated with certain more basic concerns which I have about Hallís philosophical position. Let me turn, then, to a discussion of some of my questions and reservations.

A number of these reservations relate to Hallís notion of "technological rationality" and its possible future role. His discussion tacitly acknowledges that technology as it is today is not entirely "rational," or at least that its use is often governed by such "non-rational" considerations as the desire for unlimited profits or political power (see UP 302-10). Nevertheless, like Jacques Ellul he seems to accept the idea that technology inevitably tends toward increasingly efficient and rational modes of organization and operation, that this is its "true nature." I am very skeptical of this idea, in part for reasons which it seems to me are closely related to some of Hallís own views. As has been pointed out, he stresses the importance of the aesthetic element in all experience, thought, and action. In this connection, he cites not only the Whiteheadian "emphasis upon the aesthetic modality as a means of defining the substance and form of philosophic endeavor" (El 101), but also the whole American philosophical tradition (in which, correctly I think, he locates Whiteheadís thought). Hall traces this emphasis in American thought from Edwardsí discussion of "the sense of the heart" to Peirceís notion that logical and ethical norms are ultimately grounded in aesthetics to Deweyís claim that "esthetic" quality pervades and completes all intellectual and practical activity (El 97-101). But he seemingly fails to draw the consequence that Dewey, for example, would have drawn: that "technological rationality," as a modality of human thought, cannot itself be fully understood without recourse to aesthetic and valuational concepts.

It can, I think, be argued that even the understanding of a purely formal system in mathematics or logic is a valuational activity, involving a qualitative sense of the significance of the elements of the system and their relation.6 If this is so with respect to the most abstract thought, however, is it not even more clearly the case when we consider the development, control, or understanding of a technological device or system? To relate the formal structures of mathematics and science to the concrete particularities of the world of actual objects requires not only calculation but judgment, a judgment which, if Dewey and others are correct, surely involves valuation and qualitative awareness. Of course that judgment may be exercised in the name of "efficiency" or "technological rationality," but I think that those concepts are themselves much less monolithic and more open to personal and cultural interpretation than Hall seems willing to grant. As he notes, "[the idea that] the consummation of an act of experiencing necessarily involves the aesthetic quality . . . is the ground of Deweyís resolution of the dichotomy of theory and practice. Theoria and praxis are conjoined by aisthesis" (El 99). But Hall seems to be unwilling to fallow Dewey in this regard, at least with respect to technological practice, which Dewey views as not simply a rational but an aesthetic activity, an "art" as well as a "science" (see, e.g., AE 26f., 47, and passim).7 In short, it seems to me that Hall, like Ellul and a number of other modern philosophers of technology, has accepted an image of technology not as it is but as certain of its practitioners would like it to be (and as many of its critics fear it is): as an embodiment of pure abstract rationality. I think that this image is a myth.

If this is so, it may have important practical consequences. Hallís notion of a self-sustaining technological system would seem to entail elaborate cybernetic controls, of a level of sophistication far beyond the capabilities of todayís science of "artificial intelligence." But Hubert Dreyfus and others have suggested that the whole project of attempting to develop and apply systems of artificial intelligence may be subject to limitations which are not just practical but philosophical (see, e.g., WCCD, Parts II and III and Conclusion). Dreyfusís own critique is made from the standpoint of phenomenology, but his philosophical perspective and that of a number of other critics of artificial intelligence is similar in some ways to Hallís. If human thought is regarded as fundamentally qualitative and valuational, if it involves a grasp of meaning and significance that cannot be completely formalized, then it may not be possible to duplicate human technical reason in a purely mechanical system. Without wishing to embrace all of Dreyfusís very strong claims concerning "what computers canít do," I feel that there are serious questions about the practicality of an entirely cybernetically-regulated technological system at any time in the foreseeable future. My point here is not to make dogmatic claims about what will ever be scientifically or technically possible, but to suggest once again the Hallís own vision of the future may take too seriously the self-image of some technologists as practitioners of a purely rational and completely formalizable activity.

Furthermore, I think that even if a self-regulating technology could be developed, it would entail a serious loss. Certainly I agree with Hall that there are many undesirable activities, and many unfortunate attitudes, involved in contemporary technological practice At the same time, however, it seems that the modes of thought and experience associated with the development of and active engagement with technology are so much a part of the very fabric of human culture that they probably cannot and certainly should not be simply eliminated or relegated to the care of unfeeling machines. Once again, I follow Dewey here in seeing such technologically related activities as a significant source of intense aesthetic experience in the contemporary world (see, e.g., AE 5). I see no consistent basis within the framework of Hallís own thought for asserting that this particular kind of experience is somehow "illegitimate," that its aesthetic quality is greatly inferior to that which results from the experience of art or nature or interpersonal relationships or even of mystical contemplation.

There are broader questions here. Hall says repeatedly that "the aim of speculative philosophy . . . is to heighten oneís experience of the world" (UP 346; cf. 243, 360). He also refers with approval to Whiteheadís "aesthetic interpretation of reason and his dictum that "the function of Reason is to promote the art of life" (UP 242). Yet if we are to judge purely on the basis of immediate aesthetic quality, of "intensity" in a Whiteheadian sense, on what grounds are we to prefer the experience of "passive" contemplation to that which comes from the active exercise of instrumental reason? Is there a greater aesthetic value in participatory experiencing "in accordance with the natures of things" than in a mode of experiencing which involves the active construal and perhaps even domination of the experienced object? Why is the experience associated with "non-assertive action" to be preferred to the experience arising out of the self-assertive "striving for greatness?"

I think Hall might respond to these questions in two ways, both of which are suggested but not fully developed in his writings. First, he appears to feel that certain modes of thought and activity simply are more conducive to the enrichment of immediate experience than are others. Now to some extent this is certainly true. As Whitehead. for example, repeatedly stresses, "tedium" and repetition are the enemies of aesthetic intensity. Many activities associated with technology, and many so-called "rational" processes, fall into the category of the tedious and the repetitive; they submerge aesthetic awareness in habit and routine. I would argue, however, that one cannot simply make a wholesale division of different modes of human action or experience on this basis. Doing a long series of arithmetical calculations or working all day entering data at a computer terminal may result in almost total "an-aesthesia," while proving a new mathematical theorem or writing a complex computer program may bring about intense involvement and the enjoyment of vivid immediate experience.8 "Aesthetic" experience in the more usual sense of tile term can also y~ry fi-om trivial to highly intense, even when it relates to a single object; one is reminded of the cliche situation in which one member of a couple listens in rapture to a concert while the other writhes in boredom.

Once again, it seems to me that Hall does not always take seriously enough one of the implications of his own position: that all human experience, all intellectual activity, indeed (if 01ue follows Whitehead) all reality, is pervaded by aesthetic quality. If this is so, then the issue becomes not one of distinguishing those modes of human thought and experience which are "aesthetic" in character from those which are not, but one of evaluating and comparing (insofar as this can be done) different experiences with diverse textures and degrees of aesthetic intensity. If indeed we are to judge all thought by the way it "promotes the art of life," then I think that we must recognize that there are many ways in which that "art" can be promoted, just as there are many different forms and styles within the fine arts, all of which can give rise to particular kinds of rich aesthetic experience.9

There is, however, another point of view suggested in Hallís work, particularly when, as he says, he "adjusts" the Whiteheadian perspective "in the direction of Eastern process views (UP 212). Thus he sometimes seems. to suggest that the ideals of wu-chih and wu-wei are simply in some fundamental sense "better" than the Western paradigms of active, instrumental knowing and the pursuit of power or greatness. To some extent this notion appears to reflect a basic and irreducible intuition about the nature of things. This intuition leads Hall to an extreme emphasis on the individuality and self-creativity of each individual occasion, on the importance of "deference" in the relation between occasions, and on the significance and value of contemplative or even "mystical" knowledge.

One is somewhat at a loss as to how to respond to such an appeal to intuition in a philosophical discussion. In some cases, I feel I must simply protest, with the anonymous prophet" in The Uncertain Phoenix, "Not the vision I saw" (UP 371). To some degree, however, I share the sensibility reflected in Hallís discussion. There does seem to be something fundamentally wrong with activity exclusively determined by the pursuit of power, or claims to "know" which simply reflect the imposition of the perspective of the knower upon the object known. In explicating this "wrongness," however, my inclination would be to have recourse first of all to the kind of philosophical argument which I have already adumbrated: that in many instances such ways of knowing and acting do not effectively promote the fullest realization of values in immediate experience."10 I also feel that Hallís version of the Taoist position involves some philosophically questionable claims.

For example, I think that there are serious problems with the notion of a pure "contemplative" or "receptive" mode of knowing. Hall asserts that he is "not suggesting that we substitute the so-called receptive mode of consciousness for the active mode." Rather than such "disjunctive" thinking, which itself implies the "dominance of one mode, he envisions a new sensibility . . . based on the balancing of the active and receptive" (UP 373). But even this formulation suggests that there is a purely receptive mode of consciousness, a mode which Hall certainly thinks should be given greater importance even if it is not entirely "substituted" for the "active mode. Yet philosophers at least since Kant have argued with great force against just such a notion of pure receptivity and have asserted in a variety of ways that the subject is always an active participant in the process of knowing. I find this emphasis particularly strong in the American philosophical tradition to which Hall appeals at several points. The claim of Dewey and others that all knowing involves aesthetic valuation is intimately associated with the idea that knowing is purposive, that it is guided and given form by some end in view, some active concern of the knower. Despite Hallís appeal to the Whiteheadian separation of "practical" and "speculative" reason,11 I think that on a more fundamental level Whitehead too regards knowing (or more broadly the relation of any actual occasion to its "environment") as an active process in which the aim of the subject at its own attainment of value partially determines how it will respond to the objects of which it is aware. It is interesting to note that while rejecting Kantís "doctrine of the objective world as a construct from subjective experience," Whitehead speaks approvingly of the Kantian "conception of experience as a constructive functioning," though he inverts the Kantian order and sees this functioning as "transforming objectivity into subjectivity" (PR 156/ 236f.). What I do not find in Whitehead is any account of knowing or awareness understood as pure contemplation or passive receptivity. Once again, it seems that the very aesthetic emphasis which Hall shares with Whitehead involves the idea that the values of the subject enter into its experience of the object.

I realize that in speaking in support of the idea of the active character of all knowing, I open myself to attack not only from Hallís Taoist perspective but from the standpoint of a number of other significant critics of contemporary thought and culture. For example, Martin Heidegger argues that the whole modern view of the person as an active subject engaged in the process of knowing leads to the "nihilism" of Nietzsche, to the idea of knowing as the pure exercise of the will to power which has its fullest expression in contemporary science and technology (see, e.g., QT): In one sense my response can only be that I believe knowing is most truly understood as an active process, and that I think that the idea of a purely receptive knowing is a myth, albeit perhaps an appealing one. I think it is worth remembering that the ideal of "receptive" or "intuitive" knowing can also lead to abuses: it can too easily become a rationalization for beliefs or actions whose real source may be quite other than a direct awareness of or participation in "the natures of things." The Eastern modes of thought which Hall praises have themselves been the source of doctrines which support the domination of one group of persons by another l2 and have at least failed to prevent (and have perhaps sometimes helped to bring about) many actions destructive of human life and the natural environment.

At the same time, I do not think that the notion of the active participation of the knower in the process of knowing needs to lead to such sinister consequences as is sometimes suggested. The pragmatist account, for example, sees human perceiving and knowing as extensions of the process whereby any organism both responds to and acts upon its environment. On a more metaphysically fundamental level, Whiteheadís "philosophy of organism also regards knowing as a special case of the "bipolar" nature of all becoming, whereby the direct "physical" response to objective reality is partially transformed by "mental" functioning in the realization of a novel subjective experience. It is particularly notable that for Whitehead the "higher phases of experience" entail the progressively greater importance of the mental pole, that is, of the move beyond bare receptivity to imaginative transformation. It is only thus, as Hallís own stress on imagination and creativity suggests, that there can be a realization of intense aesthetic experience.

There also seems to be something quite contradictory about Hallís claim that instrumental knowledge is simply an arbitrary construal of nature, that the very laws which science supposedly "discovers" are but archai which we somehow impose upon the world (see, e.g., UP 261-70). If this were so then it would seem that nature could be made to dance to any tune we piped. But one of the great problems of modern technology, as Hall himself would surely acknowledge, has been its repeated failure to act "in accordance with the natures of things," its attempts to impose inappropriate structures in ignorance of or disregard for environmental constraints. Conversely, I would argue that what the good technologist, like the good artist, needs, is an active awareness of the nature of her materials and her environment. The artist or engineer does not simply respond or record, but creates; yet to be successful that creation must respect "the grain in the stone" from which a statue is carved or the malleability of steel from which a bridge is built, the acoustic environment of the concert ball or the natural environment of a highway right-of-way. No effectively instrumental knowledge can be merely arbitrary; and, I would argue, no genuinely creative aesthetic response can be purely passive or receptive.

Another aspect of Hallís basic philosophical position which I question is his interpretation of "creativity" and its relation to value. As has been pointed out, his emphasis is on the self creativity of each individual, an idea which is associated with a number of other key notions in his thought.

The primary characteristics of any self-creative beings -- and we must suppose that this holds pre-eminently for human beings -- are freedom, transience, and novel purpose . . . The denial of rationality as the primary character of experience involves the denial of principles as external sources of order and thus entails the consequence that each aesthetic event will constitute its own source of order and novelty. (UP 387)

Now although Hall considers this a "process" view of creativity, its emphasis upon the individual as "its own source of order and novelty" is more extreme than that in Whiteheadís philosophy. It is true, as Hall points out, that for Whitehead ordering principles are "immanent" within particular occasions (see UP 261-70), but in most cases those ordering principles also reflect the "mutual relations" of individuals, as well as the "community in character" pervading groups or societies of individuals (AI 142).13 This is particularly true of persons: the relations between occasions which constitute the human body and brain, and the "community of character" of the succession of personal experiences, give an essential element of unity to human experience.

In general, the realization of intense aesthetic value is for Whitehead both an individual and a social matter.

Existence, in its own nature, is the upholding of value-intensity. Also no unit can separate itself from the others, and from the whole. And yet each unit exists in its own right. It upholds value-intensity for itself, and this involves sharing value-intensity with the universe. Everything that in any sense exists has two sides, namely its individual self and its signification in the universe. (MT 151)

Not only the spontaneous self-creativity of the individual but the social order which makes possible that particular exercise of spontaneity is essential for intense value-experience Indeed Whitehead says that "Ďorderí means Ďsocietyí permissive of actualities with patterned intensity of feeling arising from adjusted contrasts" (PR 244/ 373f.). Once again, the "order" of human personal identity is seen as particularly important. "The World of Change develops Enduring Personal Identity as its effective aspect for the realization of value. Apart from some mode of personality there is trivialization of value" (ESP 89; cf. 84f.).

Now the point of this discussion is not to appeal to Whitehead as some sort of final authority; Hall clearly recognizes that his own view differs from that of Whitehead at some points (see, e.g., UP 200f., 269, 290 n. 51). But in this case I believe that Whitehead is correct in stressing the need for endurance as well as novelty, order as well as spontaneity, partial determination from the past together with free creativity in the present, as essential for value-intensity. These principles can themselves be seen as "aesthetic" in both the narrower and the broader sense: they define the conditions for the achievement of value in a work of art, or in the experience of any actual occasion.

Now one thing that this suggests is that one should not be quite so ready as Hall to give up the notion of the enduring self. Unlike some critics of process philosophy, I am not convinced that a "substantial selfí is a necessary precondition of moral responsibility;14 furthermore, I have considerable sympathy for Hallís claim that narrowly moral concepts tend to be overemphasized in our culture at the expense of concepts of aesthetic or experiential value. But I follow Whitehead here in suggesting that the greatest importance of the "enduring personality" (which of course for Whitehead is precisely not a substantial self but a particular kind of society) may be its role in facilitating intense value experience. With regard to the specific topic of this paper, I would also again argue that like the structures of human personality and human social organization, technological structures are not necessarily antithetical to aesthetic experience, but that they can serve to facilitate and enhance such experience.

My conclusion, I think, is both more and less optimistic than that of Hall. I agree with much of his negative account of the state of contemporary culture and the role of modern technology. I would not for a minute wish to deny that we are too often motivated by an obsessive desire for power and control, and dominated by a narrow and calculating rationality which cannot even acknowledge the deeper values of human life and experience, and that such attitudes may contribute to the coming of one form or another of global catastrophe. Unlike Hall, I cannot take comfort in the idea that the future is not ours to control, but that technology may take its own course to a better tomorrow. I think that for all the complexity and inertia of the technological enterprise, it is still our enterprise to guide as best we can. Hallís notion of the technician absconditus strikes me as not only impractical but (to use a word which Hall will doubtless dislike) irresponsible as well. Having brought to life our Frankensteinís monster, we cannot simply turn him loose in the world with no guidance.

But perhaps he is not altogether monstrous. The burden of the preceding discussion is to suggest that technology, with all its problems, is not a monolithic entity whose very touch brings the death of creativity and aesthetic experience, but an integral aspect of human personal and social existence, with all the richness and ambiguity of human life itself. If we keep Hallís emphasis on creativity, aesthetic value, and knowledge and action in accordance with the natures of things, but see these as possible in association with "external" as well as "internal" technologies, then we may attain a new "eutopic vision." Perhaps there is a possible future in which art, science, and technology are more nearly one, in which rationality is explicitly informed by value and action shaped by a concern for the goods of those on whom it impinges. I am not sure how realistic is it to hope for such a future, or to try to bring it about, but it is the best prospect I can see.

Finally, I would like to suggest that The Uncertain Phoenix provides a valuable model for future discussions by process philosophers. Despite my considerable disagreements with the specifics of Hallís analysis of technological society, I share a sense of the importance of going beyond the narrowly reductive categories characteristic of much modern scientific and technological thinking, by making use of such process concepts as creativity and aesthetic intensity. I believe that process thought has much to contribute to contemporary philosophical discussions of technology and that Hallís book is a significant step in this direction.

 

References:

AE -- John Dewey. Art as Experience. New York: Capricorn Books, 1958.

EI -- David L. Hall. Eros and Irony: A Prelude to Philosophical Anarchism. New York: State University of New York Press, 1982.

QT -- Martin Heidegger. The Question Concerning Technology. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

UP -- David L. Hall. The Uncertain Phoenix: Adventures Toward a Post-Cultural Sensibility. New York: Fordham University Press, 1982.

WCCD -- Hubert L. Dreyfus. What Computers Canít Do. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.

 

Notes:

1 The best-known recent statement of this view is probably Lynn Whiteís article "The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" (Science 155 [March 10, 1967]: reprinted in Whiteís Machina ex Deo [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968] and in numerous anthologies).

2 Hall says of Eros and Irony "Nor (despite some common assumptions) is this work written in the deconstructionist mode" (EI xi). Certainly many readers will see a number of common assumptions between Hallís critique of rationality as a form of control or dominance and the ideas of deconstructionist thinkers.

3 The relation between Hallís "an-archic" philosophy and his view of the proper attitude toward the future is most clearly seen in the conclusion of Eros and irony. "Since there is no Supreme Arche as source of meaning and value, there is no need to set the world right. . . Unless we free ourselves from the bias that forces us to conceive the Cosmos as a single-ordered world which it is our responsibility to recreate in social and political dimensions, we shall surely not escape the temptation to exploit the instrumental power born of our narrow and perverse anthropocentrism for totalitarian ends (EI 251).

4 There are a number of striking parallels between Hallís vision of the future (and his critique of contemporary society) and the ideas expressed by James Ogilvey in Many Dimensional Man: Decentralizing Self, Society and the Sacred (New York: Oxford University Press. 1977). Hall has told me that he regards Many Dimensional Man as reflecting a point of view quite similar to that in The Uncertain Phoenix, although he was unaware of Ogilveyís work until his own was in press.

5 The essential correctness of this insight will simply be presupposed in most of the following discussion. In addition to being reinforced by Hallís own impressive arguments in support of the fundamental status of aesthetic value, my views On this matter have been most deeply influenced by the thought of Whitehead and Dewey.

6 Dewey, for example, asserts that "[T]he more formal and mathematical science becomes, the more it is controlled by sensitiveness to a special kind of qualitative considerations." (John Dewey, "Qualitative Thought," reprinted in Richard J. Bernstein, ed., John Dewey on Experience, Nature, and Freedom [New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1960], p. 187.)

7 In discussing an earlier version of this paper, Hall responded that while there might be some aesthetic quality associated with technology, the "difference of degree" between this and the aesthetic character of other modes of human activity is so great as to constitute a "difference in kind." I suspect that there is an empirical or phenomenological difference between us concerning the actual character of experience associated with the development and use of technology. However, it also seems to me that at some points at least his arguments presuppose a complete disjunction between the technological and the aesthetic, a disjunction which I emphatically deny.

8 For a striking sociological study of the "affective" aspect of computer programming, see Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), especially Chapters 3, 5, and 6.

9 Hall says of one style of Chinese painting that it is "perhaps the very epitome of the aesthetic sense," and that it attains a subtlety of nuance and attains "harmonies . . . somewhat richer than those found in Western Renaissance and Modern forms of naturalism" (UP 257f.). He asserts elsewhere that Taoist art, like Taoist thought, opens up possibilities of experience which are closed to certain Western perspectives. The latter claim seems to me entirely unexceptionable, and indeed insofar as Hallís entire work involves an opening up of those possibilities, I am strongly in sympathy with it. But when he asserts that one style of art, or one philosophical or experiential perspective, is aesthetically "better" or "richer" than another, it seems to me that he is on very questionable ground, particularly in view of his own aesthetically oriented and "anarchistic" approach.

10 Certain recent discussions of environmental ethics, dealing with "respect for nature" (where nature is not necessarily limited to the realm of living things), reflect some affinities with Hallís ideas on "deference" and seem to pose a challenge to my suggestion that the pursuit of power over nature should be criticized primarily in terms of its negative effects on human values and experiences. While interesting and suggestive, such views also involve considerable problems in both clarifying and justifying the idea of "respect for nature (and the related notions of the "rights" of nature or the need for natureís liberation from human intervention and the imposition of human purposes). For an account and critique of recent work on this topic, with extensive references, see Edward Johnson, "Treating the Dirt: Environmental Ethics and Moral Theory," in Tom Regan, ed., Earthbound: New Introductory Essays in Environmental Ethics (New York: Random House, 1984).

Another interesting approach is the "axiology of thinking" being developed by Robert Neville. In Reconstruction of Thinking (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981), Neville argues that thinkers such as Dewey and Whitehead are correct in emphasizing the essential role of value in all thinking, but that a fuller account is needed of the grounds for comparison of values, the responsibilities involved in valuation, etc. (see, e.g.. pp. 101, 247-51, and passim). Nevilleís work, which is still incomplete, seems to me to provide an interesting alternative to Hallís view at many points; see also the paper cited in note 13 below.

11 See FR Chapter 2. It is interesting to note that in the course of discussing the role of speculative reason later in this work, Whitehead remarks that "Asia had no large schemes of abstract thought, energizing the minds of men and waiting to give significance to their chance experiences. It remained in contemplation and the ideas became static. This sheer contemplation of abstract ideas had stifled the anarchic curiosity producing novelty (FR 57f.). Whether or not one agrees with this characterization of Asian thought (on which Whitehead was no expert), it seems to reflect a strikingly different understanding of contemplation and its relation to speculative reason" than that which Hall expresses.

12 I have in mind particularly the relation between Taoist ideas of "masculine" and "feminine" and the status of women in traditional Chinese society.

13 See also Robert Nevilleís discussion of Eros and Irony, entitled "Uncertain Irony" (PS 14:49-58). E.g., "There can be no uniquely self-existent ontological individuals, only mutually existent individuals together" (p. 53).

14 See my paper, "Action, Responsibility, and the Problem of Personal Identity" (Society for the Study of Process Philosophies, Spring, 1976; available from the Center for Process Studies).


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