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The Plight of Cosmology

by Fatima Pinar Goktan Canevi

Fatima Pinar Goktan Canevi is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Middle East Technical University, Ankara 06531, Turkey. Her "Do We Need the ‘Actual Entities’?" was published in the proceedings of the First International Whitehead Symposium, Whitehead and the Idea of Process. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.163-169, Vol. 17, Number 3, Fall, 1988. 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.


Whitehead defines philosophy as "the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity" (PR 15/22). Whitehead’s own effort in its intention fully conforms to this conception of the philosophical enterprise. Quite ironically, however, in conceiving process in the sense of concrescence as subjective immediacy (PR 29/43) he undermines his own purpose.

Whitehead tells us that the philosophy of organism embraces what he calls the ‘reformed subjectivist principle," which doctrine, in turn, "fully accepts Descartes’ discovery that subjective experiencing is the primary metaphysical situation which is presented to metaphysics for analysis" (PR 160-243). Thus, in agreement with Cartesian terminology, he writes:

the experience enjoyed by an actual entity is that entity formaliter. By this I mean that the entity, when considered ‘formally,’ is being described in respect to those forms of its constitution whereby it is that individual entity with its own measure of absolute self realization. (PR 51/81)

In Spinozistic terminology, this means that each actual entity is causa sui (PR 88/135). In terms of his own categoreal scheme Whitehead states the same principle most explicitly in the 23rd category of explanation and the 9th categoreal obligation. The former reads:

That this self-functioning is the real internal constitution of an actual entity. It is the ‘immediacy’ of the actual entity. An actual entity is called the ‘subject’ of its own immediacy. (PR 25/38)

The latter, i.e., the 9th categoreal obligation reads: "The concrescence of each individual actual entity is internally determined and is externally free" (PR 27/41). In accordance with these principles Whitehead explains that "formal immediacy" or to be causa sui means:

that the process of concrescence is its own reason for the decision in respect to the qualitative clothing of feeling. It is finally responsible for the decision by which any lure for feeling is admitted to efficiency. The freedom inherent in the universe is constituted by this element of self-causation. (PR 88/135)

He further points out:

the word ‘subject’ means the entity constituted by the process of feeling, and including this process . . . . The process is the elimination of indeterminateness of feeling from the unity of one subjective experience. (PR 88/135)

Clearly, we have to take Whitehead seriously when he claims to be in agreement with Descartes in placing subjectivity at the core of his metaphysics. Thus, in accordance with the reformed subjectivist principle, he proclaims that "apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness" (PR 167/254). Granted that this is not the subjectivity of consciousness which Whitehead considers to be the task of philosophy to correct, but subjectivity as the primary metaphysical situation, it seems self-evident that unless subjectivity at the metaphysical level is mitigated, the same also cannot be secured at the level of consciousness. Thus Whitehead’s whole effort is concentrated upon the mitigation of metaphysical subjectivity. Whether he is successful in this effort is what I intend to consider in this paper.

First, however, I should like to address myself to the question of the general historical significance of Whitehead’s particular dilemma. The western philosophical tradition viewed as a whole stands Out as a process of the enhancement of subjectivity rather than the correction of it. Philosophy grows out of a mythopoeic soil, the naive realism of the ancient person for whom truth and being are identical. His interest in first principles is a cosmogonic one. Philosophy is born as the person becomes increasingly conscious of himself as a knower and thereby loses his naivete. The discovery of subjectivity is coupled with an awareness of the world as an object for thought as distinct from the knower. This separation is pinned down by Protagoras and bequeathed to Socrates and to Plato. If man is the measure of all things, then it is the task of man to know what those things are. Hence ontology, the study of being qua being is to be seen as the consequence and achievement of subjectivity.

In presocratic thought the naive realistic outlook is not as yet abandoned and the philosophical one is not fully established. The presocratic analysis of first principles is a mixture of cosmogony and ontology. Thus when Thales declares that water is the arche of all things, it may mean either that water is the temporally first element from which other things derive, or that all things are essentially water. The same ambiguity is present in all of the physical philosophers. It is in fact Plato who for the first time assigns cosmogony a mythopoeic significance and declares ontology to be the proper task of the philosophical discipline. Protagoras, in the dialogue which bears his name, relates a myth (320d-e) in terms of which the generation of sensible objects is explained as involving two stages. The first stage pertains to the generation of composites out of earth and fire which are the basic elements. The second stage is conceived as the constitution of the same objects as composites of various properties (dynameis). Of these two forms of explanation, it is the second which Plato considers to be the subject matter of dialectic, i.e., logical analysis, and moves therefrom to the theory of Forms. As for the first which relies upon a theory of elements, he returns to it in mythopoeic contexts only. Having established the distinction, Plato, being himself a poet, can transcend the distinction and combine, as he does in the Timaeus, the mythopoeic and the philosophical outlooks on a poetic level.

Ever since, it has been the aim of many a philosopher to recapture the Platonic synthesis but without Plato’s art and purely on philosophical grounds. This undertaking, which looks upon Plato’s Timaeus as its paradeigma, has been termed cosmology’ in the western philosophical tradition of which Whitehead’s Process and Reality is a prime example. In the latter work, Whitehead points out that the metaphysical character of Plato’s Timaeus consists in "its endeavor to connect the behavior of things with the formal nature of things" (PR 94/144). What he falls to take seriously, however, is the fact that the so-called connection is secured on poetic grounds. The "subordinate deities" who fulfill this function are given a naive realistic interpretation by Whitehead. He tells us that "In Greek thought, either poetic or philosophic, the separation between the physis and such deities had not that absolute character which it has for us who have inherited the Semitic Jehovah" (PR 94/144). For all practical purposes, Plato should not have called his Timaeus a mythos. No one in the history of western philosophy seems to have taken him seriously enough. The result has been the emergence of the cosmological point of view.

The cosmological point of view is permeated by the difficulties originating from the incompatibility of the cosmogonic and the ontological frames of reference. While the cosmogonic point of view requires a naive realistic acceptance of the world, the ontological point of view rests upon subjectivity and conceives of the world as its object. Thus, cosmology is caught up in a dilemma, a dilemma which is of the very nature of cosmology. On the one hand the world is to be viewed from the point of view of the subject and conceived objectively, and, on the other hand, it has to be maintained in its integrity, viewed from a perspective which precedes the subject-object distinction.

The scholastics were seemingly successful in overcoming this dilemma by assigning the maintenance of the world’s integrity to a transcendent God which constituted an extra-subjective point of reference -- a principle which remained intact on the basis of faith regardless of the philosophical problems concerning its nature. After the Copernican revolution in philosophy, not of Kant’s but of Descartes’, however, God was conceived as a deus ex machina, and the subjectivist point of view leaped forward. Hence, the basic inconsistency of Locke’s position, the emergence of various forms of idealism and later of Kant’s critical philosophy, the success of analytic philosophy and of phenomenology.

Whitehead’ s attempt to reinstate cosmology is to be seen as the revival of an old ideal, that of recapturing the Platonic synthesis of naive realism and ontology. In this task he can neither disregard the subjective perspective nor revert to a deus ex machina. The philosophy of organism is conceived as a way of bypassing these limitations.

The way in which Whitehead tries to achieve this end is to identify subjects as the basic elements (stoicheia) of reality. In this he differs from Leibniz in a most significant way, in that, whereas in Leibniz’s philosophical scheme reality is transported into subjectivity as ontology suggests, in Whitehead’s the procedure is reversed and subjectivity is transported into reality in accordance with naive realism as cosmology demands. This also explains how in the Leibnizian scheme God, which too is a monad, can be transcendent qua creator as opposed to all the other monads which are created, whereas in the Whiteheadian one it has to be conceived in accordance with the same principles applicable to other actual entities.

It has to be noted that Whitehead’ s position in this respect is quite different from that of Aristotle’s as well. It is true that in accordance with the Aristotelian position the individuals are the primary substances and as such they are the ultimate unities constituting reality. But from the Whiteheadian point of view these primary substances are vacuous. He defines "vacuous actuality," "which haunts realistic philosophy," as "the notion of res vera devoid of subjective immediacy." He points out that this notion is "closely allied to the notion of ‘inherence of quality in substance.’ Both notions -- in their misapplication as fundamental metaphysical categories -- find their chief support in a misunderstanding of the true analysis of ‘presentational immediacy"’ (PR 29/43). The difference between Aristotelian philosophy and the Whiteheadian one can be briefly stated by saying that whereas the former is a realistic position, the latter is a naive realistic one. In the former the res vera are capable of philosophical analysis only to the extent that they are objects for thought, whereas the latter demands that the same be capable of analysis qua subjective immediacy. That is to say, the res vera should be analyzable not only from an external point of view. but an internal one as well. This means that the philosophical scheme should render it possible to speak from within reality, and not only human reality at that. It is this requirement which ultimately characterizes process philosophy. I should like to point out parenthetically that it is in this respect that the philosophies of Spinoza and of Hegel can be viewed as precursors of process philosophy.

The actual entities which are the building blocks of the cosmos are subjects and as such they are in process. Thus process is the nature of reality qua the actual entities. But as subject an actual entity requires an objective world. Thus an objective analysis of the world, i.e., an ontology of the world, is called for from the point of view of an actual entity. The burden lies with the justification of the claim that the objective world from the point of view of a given subject coalesces with the naive realistic frame of reference in terms of which the same subject is in the world, i.e., an unitary component of reality in togetherness with other entities such as itself. Whitehead’s whole effort in Process and Reality is convergent on this task.

The Whiteheadian term "actual entity" is in itself an assertion of the cosmological point of view. It signifies a subject-superject. That is to say, the actual qua subjective immediacy is process but qua entity it is an object. The concept of ‘actual entity’ is thus a synthetic one so that Whitehead’s speculative scheme has to provide a justification for this synthesis. Obviously Whitehead was quite well aware of this necessity and tried to meet it. Whether he was successful is another question. Speaking of Locke’s assumption that ideas are the proper objects of knowledge, Thomas Reid had said that he had no argument. "Locke says it and repeats it, but never proves or tries to prove it." Clearly Whitehead, unlike Locke, did try to substantiate his fundamental claim. Whether he was successful is open to discussion.

The way in which Whitehead tackles this problem is through the introduction of a new concept of objectivity. This indeed is what he means by a "true analysis of ‘presentational immediacy"’ (PR 29/43). In the 8th category of explanation he defines "objectification" as "the particular mode in which the potentiality of one actual entity is realized in another actual entity." Whitehead explains that "The principle of universal relativity directly traverses Aristotle’s dictum, ‘A substance is not present in a subject."’ Objectification is precisely the way in which, allowances being made for degrees of relevance, "every actual entity is present in every other actual entity" (PR 50/79). Thus "objectification" is conceived as a relational term. More importantly, however, objectification signifies not an external but an internal relatedness. The 10th category of explanation states: "That the first analysis of an actual entity, into its most concrete elements, discloses it to be a concrescence of prehensions, which have originated in its process of becoming. All further analysis is an analysis of prehensions." Prehensions, which are "the concrete facts of relatedness" are in turn conceived as cases of objectification. ‘The ‘positive prehension’ of an entity by an actual entity is the complete transaction analyzable into the ingression, or objectification, of that entity as a datum for feeling, and into the feeling whereby this datum is absorbed into the subjective satisfaction" (PR 52/82). Thus objectification is the bond between a given subject in its immediacy and another entity which is devoid of immediacy.

Two types of objectification are recognized: causal and presentational.

In ‘causal objectification’ what is felt subjectively by the objectified actual entity is transmitted objectively to the concrescent actualities which supersede it. In Locke’s phraseology the objectified actual entity is then exerting ‘power In this type of objectification the eternal objects, relational between object and subject, express the formal constitution of the objectified actual entity.

In ‘presentational objectification’ the relational eternal objects fall into two sets, one set contributed by the ‘extensive’ perspective of the perceived from the position of the perceiver, and the other set by the antecedent concrescent phases of the perceiver. (PR 58/91)

In both cases of objectification we have an internal view of the percipient subject. Objectification is a relation between the said subject and its data. In causal objectification, however, there is involved the further point that the datum itself is a subject, although not in this context a percipient one. In Whiteheadian terminology this means that only past actual entities which are devoid of subjective immediacy can be objectified. The question which immediately arises at this point is whether causal objectification as such can substantiate the claim that objectified actual entities are to be conceived not merely as superjects but subjects as well. Stated differently, the question is whether what are referred to as past actual entities are in fact actual entities instead of merely entities.

Whitehead needs to establish the fact that at least one type of objectified entities are actual entities in order to escape the solipsism of the present moment, as he himself notes (PR 81/125, 152/230-231). That is to say, he needs to establish internal relations as external relations as well in order to escape from falling into a form of idealism in the Hegelian mode and to maintain a form of pluralism as opposed to Spinozistic monism. The principle of causal objectification is the only principle in terms of which Whitehead can hope to achieve this result, for causal objectification is conceived precisely as that very relation whereby an actual entity transcends its presentational immediacy (PR 81/125). Whitehead points out that the "objectified experiences of the past . . . describes the efficient causation operative in the actual world" (PR 115-117/176-178). "According to this account, efficient causation expresses the transition from actual entity to actual entity" (PR 150/228).

Having said so, however, Whitehead goes on to point out that transition is characterized by mere subjective responsiveness or receptivity (PR 117/178). Consequently, transition manifests itself as perception in the mode of causal efficacy (PR 120/184). He explains that "According to this account, perception in its primary form is consciousness of the causal efficacy of the external world by reason of which the percipient is a concrescence from a definitely constituted datum. The vector character of the datum is this causal efficacy" (PR 120/184). Hence causation is defined as "nothing else than one outcome of the principle that every actual entity has to house its actual world" (PR 80/124).

It seems to me that anytime the actual entity qua actual, i.e., qua subjective immediacy, is taken into consideration, the naive realistic discourse, appropriate to cosmogonic or scientific explanation, has to be abandoned and the causally efficacious datum is to be conceived as a component of the percipient subject qua concrescence whereby transition as such is lost sight of and replaced by process. In this context, past actual entities have the status of objects for a subject and cannot be conceived in themselves. Unless they are so conceived, however, causal efficacy cannot be established as an external relation as well as an internal one. On the other hand, if there are no external relations between actual entities, then there can be no escape from the solipsism of the present moment and pluralism cannot be secured.

In order to speak of a plurality of actual entities a principle of togetherness is needed. The extensive continuum is proposed by Whitehead as such a principle. This principle is intended to lend support to the principle of causal objectification and to help solve the problem of the solidarity of a pluralistic universe. This presents a very delicate situation. According to the philosophy of organism, "continuity concerns what is potential; whereas actuality is incurably atomic." Hence "contemporary events happen in causal independence of each other" or else actual entities would not be externally free. Accordingly, togetherness has to be so conceived as not to interfere with the principle of causal independence. Thus, Whitehead maintains that "the contemporary world is objectified for us under the aspect of passive potentiality" (PR 61/95).

The implications of this state of affairs is given in the following statement of Whitehead’s:

The limitation of the way in which the contemporary actual entities are relevant to the ‘formal’ existence of the subject in question is the first example of the general principle, that objectification relegates into irrelevance, or into a subordinate relevance, the full constitution of the objectified entity. (PR 62/96-97)

It is illuminating to compare Whitehead’s analysis at this point with that of Leibniz. Leibniz, having maintained that internal relations of the monads are phenomenal, had to propose pre-established harmony whereby the monads could be externally interrelated in a non-phenomenal, i.e., real, sense. Whitehead, on the other hand, having conceived internal relations, i.e., objectifications, as phases of concrescence, i.e., as real, develops a position whereby external relations are constituted qua objectification and are potential, if not phenomenal.

. . . the objectified contemporaries are only directly relevant to the subject in their character of arising from a datum which is an extensive continuum. They do, in fact, atomize this continuum; but the aboriginal potentiality, which they include and realize, is what they contribute as the relevant factor in their objectifications. They thus exhibit the community of contemporary actualities as a common world with mathematical relations . . . . (PR 62/97)

The extensive continuum as a principle of togetherness of actual entities is given to presentational immediacy which "gives positive information only about the immediate present as defined by itself’ (PR 124/189). Accordingly, extensive continuum as such does not seem to be an adequate principle of real togetherness, of real external relations. Whitehead thus moves on to supplement it with a discussion of the "presented locus." This concept is intended to provide a passage from presentational immediacy to causal efficacy whereby extensive continuum can be conceived also as a principle of real external relations.

"Presented locus" is a common ground of perception in the mode of causal efficacy as well as perception in the mode of presentational immediacy. It is directly perceived in presentational immediacy, "while the causal past, the causal future, and the other contemporary events, are only indirectly perceived by means of the extensive relations to the presented locus" (PR 169/257). Clearly, the perceptive mode of causal efficacy is here conceived as the perception of the presented locus as a part of "the general scheme of extensive interconnection."

Now, Whitehead considers the extensive continuum as "real" "because it expresses a fact derived from the actual world and concerning the contemporary actual world . . . It is the reality of what is potential, in its character of a real component of what is actual" (PR 66/103). Thus, "presented locus" is conceived as an atomized, i.e., actualized portion of extensive continuum. It follows that this portion is continuous with the rest of the extensive continuum. The question, however, is that of whether from the standpoint of a given actual entity, any other portion of the extensive continuum but its own, can be objectified as atomized. Since what is objectified is the "aboriginal potentiality," unless other actual entities be given, their presented loci cannot be given. The "presented locus" cannot constitute an access to other actual entities qua actual, but qua entity only. It is in this sense that a given actual entity "is everywhere throughout the continuum; for its constitution includes the objectifications of the actual world and thereby includes the continuum" (PR 67/104).

The "presented locus" is indeed of no real help in leading us from presentational immediacy to causal efficacy, for perception in the mode of causal efficacy itself is a type of objectification, giving us merely an internal view of the subject. Whitehead himself seems to be aware of this shortcoming in his analysis when he says:

It thus stands out at once, that what we want to know from the point of view either of curiosity or of technology, chiefly resides in those aspects of the world disclosed in causal efficacy: but what we can distinctly register is chiefly to be found among the percepta in the mode of presentational immediacy. (PR 169/257)

To the extent that an actual entity cannot transcend its subjectivity and have access to other actual entities qua subjects, Whitehead cannot be said to succeed in mitigating metaphysical subjectivity. From the point of view of an actual entity in its concrescence, there are no other actual entities but entities only. A subject is capable only of internal relations whereby all the terms of relations are elements in its own constitution. That those terms also are externally, it cannot judge. Nor can it itself be an object for itself. In being a subject it can be an object only for another. But if it can have no access to other subjects, it cannot conceive of itself even as a potential object for another subject.

It would seem that one issue Whitehead had in mind in his conception of the consequent nature of God was the maintenance of external relations between actual entities and hence also of pluralism. Thus Whitehead’s God is conceived almost as a principle of post-established harmony. But even this is not tenable in that God too is an actual entity and is governed by the very same principles that apply to other actual entities. Thus God also, qua subject, can have no access to other actual entities qua subjects and cannot be a principle of external relations.

The naive realistic perspective, which was rejoined to philosophy after the renaissance and embraced by scientists, resulted in the modern period in a revival of the cosmological point of view. By the end of the 18th century the various difficulties in the assimilation of naive realism into the philosophical perspective had become apparent. Kant’s critical philosophy was the ultimate conclusion of this development. But the interest in the cosmological synthesis was not thereby given up. Nineteenth-century philosophers turned to the presocratics as a source of inspiration and instruction. Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Heidegger developed their perspectives under such guidance. Whitehead’s philosophy is no exception to this nostalgic trend. Yet in his case once again, the cosmological point of view has displayed its intrinsic inconsistency.

Of course, we have to remember that Whitehead’s preference lies with adequacy rather than consistency. He prefers Locke to Hume, Descartes to Spinoza. If this is to be understood as a matter of personal taste we have no right to contest it. But Whitehead also said that "Speculative boldness must be balanced by complete humility before logic, and before fact. It is a disease of philosophy when it is neither bold nor humble, but merely a reflection of the temperamental presuppositions of exceptional personalities" (PR 17/25). It seems to me that it is time we showed humility before logic and before fact, and realized that the basic problem with cosmological theories lies not with the powers of explanation of the philosophers who have proposed them, but the incompatibility of the two fundamental components of cosmological analysis. Cosmology as such consists in a naive realistic ontology which is a contradiction in terms, in that, naive realism is a non-philosophical, mythopoeic posture and cannot be assimilated into the philosophical perspective which of necessity is a self-conscious activity.


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