Value Experience

Here is the text of one of my talks from the SLSA conference this weekend. It was for a panel (part of a stream) on "Towards a Stengers-Whitehead Lexicon of the Nonhuman."

Alfred North Whitehead writes in "Civilized Universe," the sixth lecture in his book Modes of Thought, that "we have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe" (MT 111). Isabelle Stengers remarks, rather sardonically, that this "demand" on Whitehead's part is "foolish," because it "challenges philosophy to refrain indulging its favourite sport, catching commonsensical positions into the clutches of "either… or" alternatives" (Stengers Claremont talk, 12). Stengers then goes on to comicaly imagine a Socrates who accepted and even celebrated the "value experiences" of all his fellow Athenian citizens, instead of striving to deface those experiences by proving that none of his interlocutors knew what they were talking about.

Following Stengers, I'd like to consider what it might really mean to refrain from defacing value experiences. I take it that this largely applies to the "value experiences" of others than ourselves. And respecting the value experiences of others is not always an easy thing to do. I certainly don't want religious fundamentalists who deny the theory of evolution and claim that the Earth is only 6,000 years old to be teaching my children. But living as an atheist in a common world with religious believers, I also reject defacing the value experience of those believers, in the way that "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens have done.

I also want to work through the implications of Whitehead's claim that such "value experience… is the very essence of the universe." But doing this demands that we pass beyond the human. For Whitehead's claims here, as always, are cosmological in scope — or as Stengers puts it, cosmopolitical. Other entities aside from human beings also have "value experiences" that we have no right to deface. We need to take some account, at least, of the value experiences of dogs and flies and clams, of trees and slime molds and bacteria, and even of pebbles, drops of water, and stars.

To this extent, Graham Harman and the other thinkers of Object Oriented Ontology are right to regard Whitehead as an exemplary anti-anthropocentric thinker, an anti-correlationist avant la lettre. For Whitehead no less than for Harman, "all relations are on the same footing" (Harman 2008, 4). This means that, for Whitehead just as for OOO, the particular relation that is the obsessive concern of post-Cartesian and post-Kantian epistemology — the relation between human beings as subjects, and the objects that they happen to perceive — does not have any unique or special philosophical status. Epistemology loses its centrality, as the problem of knowledge is just one instance of the more general problem of how entities relate to, and interact with, one another. For Whitehead, physical causality and mental intentionality are just two among the many ways in which entities "prehend" one another. For Harman, similarly, both "vicarious causation" and metaphorical "allusion" are instances of sensual contact. For Whitehead and Harman alike, the problem of relations is therefore ultimately an aesthetic one.

Whitehead's anti-anthropocentrism, shared by OOO, also implies that relations among entities — and, in particular, relations of sensation and perception — cannot be reduced, in the manner of British empiricism, to atomistc "sense impressions" in the "mind" of a human observer — or more generally in the mind of one of the entities in the relationship. Harman rightly insists that we encounter, not isolated impressions, but whole objects. Citing Husserl, Harman argues that an "intentional object" is more than just a "bundle of adumbrations" (Harman 2011b, 24). Even though I may only see particular "adumbrations" of a tree, it is indeed a tree that I am actually seeing. The tree is real; it cannot be reduced to the status of being a mere mental construction (as Hume would suggest), or even the sum of its various actual and possible adumbrations (as Merleau-Ponty argues — Harman 2011b, 24-25). It's not the mind that unites multiple perceptions into the figure of a tree; rather, the tree itself is already doing this. For Whitehead, similarly, our "ideas" are always "determined to particular existents," rather than being ungrounded universals (PR 138). In this way, "an actual entity is present in other actual entities" (PR 50). We do not just receive isolated impressions, which we would then only combine in our minds. In any experience, "the datum includes its own interconnections" already (PR 113).

Indeed, Whitehead goes still further than this. He doesn't just claim that the existence of an entity cannot be reduced to the sum of another entity's "impressions" and "ideas" about it. He also argues, beyond this, that the atomistic perceptions upon which British empiricism bases its account of experience are trivial and unimportant. At best, they are just minor refinements of a much more basic form of experience. And this is directly connected with Whitehead's dismissal of anthropocentrism. It may well be, Whitehead concedes, that the "clearly envisaged details" of distinct perception "exalt men above animals, and animals above vegetables, and vegetables beyond stones" (MT 109). But these "details" play only a minor role in comparison to the vague and diffuse "background" out of which they emerge. "If we forget the background," he writes, "the result is triviality" (MT 108). Indeed, consciousness is a highly specialized and extremely rare form of feeling, which "only arises in a late derivative phase of complex integrations" (PR 162). Most thought, or sentience, or sensibility, or experience — both in ourselves and in other beings — consists in "simple physical feelings" that are not themselves conscious (PR 236).

The upshot of this is that we need to stop congratulating ourselves upon the breadth and subtlety of our consciousness and self-consciousness. We ought to recognize, instead, that "thought" is a much humbler, and much more common, phenomenon than we usually assume. Thought — or sentience, or experientiality — happens in many ways and on many levels. It is not just a matter of concepts, or computation, or cognition. It includes all of these, but also extends beneath them, or behind them. Thought doesn't require rational understanding, or a cogito. It doesn't even require a brain — as recent studies of brainless organisms like trees, slime molds, and bacteria have clearly shown.

Deleuzians — starting with Deleuze himself — love to cite Spinoza's dictum that we do not know what a body can do. But it also true, for a symmetrically opposite reason, that we do not really know what thought can do. For often thought does far less, and operates far more diffusely — than we know. Most thought takes place below our threshold of conscious awareness. Cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind are quite aware of this. The cognitivists are entirely right to point up the importance of nonconscious mental processing. My only problem with them is that they are content to stop with cognition. They need to extend their views to also include noncognitive and precognitive experience. This is what Whitehead calls "feeling" — and what Kant already points to in his discussion of aesthetic experience, or intuitions without concepts, in the Third Critique.

Timothy Morton makes much the same point about thought, in the context of OOO. Morton suggests that, when I perceive a pencil lying on a table, my relation to the pencil is not all that different from the table's own relation to the pencil. If I the pencil is the "intentional object" of my thought, then it is a kind of intentional object for the table also. In saying this, I am of course not making the claim that tables are wont to reflect upon ontology. Rather, I am trying to point out that reflecting upon ontology, or contemplating Being, is not that significant a feature of our own mental lives either. Here Heidegger's critique of thematization, and Harman's extension of this, are as much to the point as are Whitehead's observations on how we overestimate "clear and distinct" perception. Our inner mental lives mostly consist mostly of far more mundane and situated practices than conceptualization. The table holds up the pencil; but I am also holding up the pencil, when I contemplate it, or when I grasp it in order to write.

This line of argument also entails that perception and causality are pretty much the same thing; or at least that they are varieties of the same thing. Whitehead distinguishes between "causal efficacy" and "presentational immediacy" (PR 120-121). The former involves the feeling of being caused, or more broadly of cause and effect; while the latter has to do with conscious representation. But for Whitehead, they are both modes of perception, or forms of prehension. Harman also sees causal relations and metaphorical allusions alike as being ways in which otherwise separate entities nonetheless enter into vicarious contact. Timothy Morton generalizes this, when hee describes the aesthetic as the realm of causal relations. For OOO and Whitehead alike, thought is primordially aesthetic, and ultimately inseparable from physical causality. If A contemplates or otherwise perceives B, this means that B is a cause of A.

Thus far I have been pointing out the similarities between Whitehead's metaphysics and that of OOO. But this discussion also leads us to a crucial difference between Whitehead's philosophy and OOO. And no, I am not referring here to the well-known dispute over what Harman calls "relationism," or what Levi Bryant calls the difference between internal and external relations. Far too much ink has been spilled on this point already, and I do not think the discussion is profitable any more. Rather, I would like to suggest that the really important difference between Whitehead and OOO has to do, not so much with whether and how we prioritize relations, as it does with the ontological status of this humbler form of thought that they both espouse.

Things think, for Harman, but only under certain conditions. Harman rejects panpsychism, according to which — he says — "anything that exists must also perceive." Harman instead argues that "anything that relates must perceive… This means that entities have psyches accidentally, not in their own right" (Harman 2008, 9). Even shale and cantaloupe perceive and think and display intentionality, Harman maintains, insofar as they come into contact with us, or with one another. But according to Harman, such contact is merely contingent. Conversely, even human beings do not perceive and think and intend in their inner depths, but only on their outer surfaces. Thought, for Harman as for the phenomenologists, is always necessarily intentional. To think means to think about something, and therefore to relate to something — and indeed to correlate with something. But as such, thought for Harman is necessarily vicarious, or occasional (Harman 2009, 221).

To state this in other terms, it is always possible, according to Harman, that a particular entity does not relate to anything at all. Harman tells us that "the name for an object that exists without relating, exists without perceiving, is a sleeping entity, or a dormant one… Dormant objects are those which are real, but currently without psyche. Each night we make ourselves as dormant as we can, stripping away the accidental accretions of the day and gathering ourselves once more in the essential life where we are untouched by external relations" (Harman 2008, 9).

When I hear this, I cannot help asking: to sleep, perchance to dream? To the extent that dreaming is internally generated, its very possibility shows us that the psyche exists and functions even in the absence of external perception or stimulation. And, to the extent that dreaming does respond to events outside the dreamer, we have evidence that what Harman calls "withdrawal" is never total or absolute, even when the dreamer is not explicitly conscious of these external events. Harman seems to envisage ontological withdrawal as an impossibly dreamless sleep, one altogether devoid of thought or sensation, and therefore blissfully free from any sort of correlation whatsoever.

Whitehead, in contrast, never envisages such a blank utopia. Things don't need to relate, in order to dream or to feel. They do so intrinsically, as part of their very being. Panpsychism claims that anything that exists must also think; but — contra Harman — this does not necessarily mean that anything that exists must also "perceive." At least not if we understand "perception" as a matter of intentionality and presentational immediacy. If ontological equality means anything, it means that all entities in the universe, without exception, are sentient or experiential. In other words, where OOO claims that everything is an object, Whitehead rather claims that everything is a subject: "apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness" (PR 167).

Now, of course this distinction is not quite as absolute as it sounds. "Subject" and "object" are only relative terms: unsurprisingly, since they form a system together. Subjective experience in Whitehead perpetually perishes, and thereby passes over into the "objective immortality" of being a datum for subsequent acts of experience. Conversely, objects in OOO exhibit their own sort of subjectivity, insofar as "intentionality is not a special human property at all, but an ontological feature of objects in general" (Harman 2007b, 205). For OOO, all entities have their own inner being or "alien phenomenology" (Bogost).

Nonetheless, there is still a significant difference between the two positions. For Harman and Morton, causality and aesthetic experience are restricted to what they call the "sensuous" realm. The deep inner essence of objects remains untouched. For Whitehead, however, the conflation of causality and aesthetics is universal; there is no deep "substantial" (or "real") realm in contrast to the "sensual" one. "Experience" cannot be so restricted, because it is a common, generic feature of all entities. As long as there is something rather than nothing, there is, at the very least, an instance of simple physical feeling. That is to say, "thought" exists — or better, it happens — even in the absence of what the phenomenologists call intentionality, and of what the empiricists call "perception."

My current project is to work out what it might mean to thus posit an "image of thought" (as Deleuze would say) that is nonintentional, and thereby noncorrelational or uncorrelated. I take a hint for this from the way that Deleuze suggests a contrast between Husserl — for whom, as Deleuze puts is, "all consciousness is consciousness of something"), and Bergson — who "more strongly" asserts, Deleuze says, that "all consciousness is something" (Deleuze 1986, 56). As I have already mentioned, I agree with Whitehead that "thought" cannot be equated to "consciousness"; this would require some revision of Deleuze's formulas. Nonetheless, I maintain that the more primordial modes of thought — or of sentience, or experience, or "feeling" — can be something before they are about something, before they establish anything like a correlation with things outside of themselves. Such modes of thought are not solipsistic, because they do not refer back to themselves any more than they refer to other things. They are "vague" and indistinct, as Whitehead says, but for this very reason they are no more self-contained than they are outwardly referential.

A better "image" of this sort of thought might be that which is found in autism. I say this on condition that we cease to regard autism pejoratively, as a failure to adhere to neurotypical norms, or as the medicalized incapacity to develop a "theory of mind." Instead, we must understand autism as an original mode of being in the world — as the neurodiversity movement has advocated, and as scholars in the field of disability studies are beginning to understand (Savarese & Savarese 2012, 1). In working through the consequences of this new understanding, Erin Manning suggests that, in point of fact, autistics are stigmatized for not approaching the world "according to standard human-centered expectations" (Manning 2013, 227). Instead, she says, autistics are in fact acutely sensitive beyond the human. They are responsive to "resonances across scales and registers of life, both organic and inorganic"; the testimony of autistics themselves indicates that, for them, "everything is somewhat alive," and therefore an object of empathy and concern (225-226). We might say that autistics are inherently non-correlationist; they do not focus their intentionality upon particular chosen objects, but exhibit a more diffuse and wide-bandwidth sort of sentience. While there are risks in any metaphorical extensions of aspects of human experience to entities in the world more generally, I would still suggest that autism offers us a more adequate "image of thought" than the one provided by phenomenology.

Manning goes on to suggest that autistic experiences may provide us with "a transversal, ontogenetic concept of the ethical," — one that "can never begin with the human, or with the body as such" (Manning 2013, 255). I would like to suggest that such a concept of the ethical is close to what Whitehead means by "value experience." For value, so understood, in intrinsic to the primordial feeling that is the heart of experience, to some extent at least, for every actually existing entity. It isn't just human beings (or even just human beings and other mammals) who have value experience. Trees and slime molds have values and meanings too; and so even do rocks and stars and neutrinos, at least to a minimal extent. This is why "value experience" is the very essence of the universe, and why Whitehead says that we have no right to deface it. For Whitehead, value is immanent to experience as such. Valuation is a universal activity, rather than a specifically human imposition upon an object-world that would otherwise be passive, inert, valueless, and meaningless.

Whitehead insists upon the immanence of value and meaning to the immediate, everyday experience of all the entities in the world that have experience. This puts Whitehead at odds both with moral absolutists, for whom the only acceptable values and meanings are their own, and to relativists, for whom values and meanings are nothing more than arbitrary, extrinsically imposed norms. Whitehead's ethics is neither categorical and absolute, nor is it merely empirical. Rather, Whitehead subordinates ethics to aesthetics, and derives his ethics only from aesthetics. This is something that many people find difficult to accept. But today, as we come to realize that — in the words of Bruno Latour — "we have never been modern," and as — in the face of ecological and economic crises alike — we are no longer at liberty to ignore what Stengers calls the cosmopolitical aspects of our situation, Whitehead's aestheticist account of value experience shows its full relevance. It is from within Whitehead's aesthetic envisagement, not just of human life, but of the cosmos, that we must understand the ethical injunction I cited at the beginning of this talk: that "we have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe."

2 thoughts on “Value Experience”

  1. Really interesting piece, Steven.

    What you were saying about Harman et al. and ‘dormant objects’ made me wonder: If it’s possible for a thing to exist while having no relations (i.e. be a dormant object) is it also possible for a thing to exist having NEVER had any relations?

    If so then that thing must be literally (and quite bizarrely) self-creating.

    If not then there are quite clear limits to how un-relational a thing can be. A thing may drop out of relationality in its immediate actuality but its existence still depends on its own past, at a bare minimum.

    If truly dormant objects exist, they must be causa sui — and, moreover, self-created in their own moment of dormancy, since otherwise they must depend on their own past.

    Personally, I think I could grant that things can drop out of actual relationality in principle if it was admitted that they retain a track record of their own history — and that such history is really an assortment of traces of past relational events. This would capture the fact that things are not *determined* by their relations but still cannot be absolutely *independent* of them (a distinction that OOO-ers conflate).

  2. Hey Steven,

    I’m not terribly well versed in Whitehead and the others you mention, but this idea of “value experience” as the “very essence of the universe” has been important to my own research for quite some time. For me there is also an imperative to not “deface” this absolutely valuable thing/experience which each thing/experience is (some resonances with Levinas’ ethics just in that dictum, “do not deface”).

    My research is based in Nietzsche and his best readers… Bataille and Nancy to name two. Roughly speaking, they diagnose society (here synonymous with the errors of correlationalist thinking…) in terms of how we humans “homogenize” things and make things “the same” or “equivalent” or “equally exchangeable” by evaluating them according to a common measure (most often market value, utility value, ideological value, etc.). It is most poignantly portrayed when a human (with all their furor and mystery) are reduced to their market value as laborers; or when, instead of interacting with people without biases or “motives”, we funnel them through different lenses, uses, or pre-given ideological value-systems that keep us from really encountering them in their “absolute uniqueness,” their “withdrawal” from us and these systems. This insight can be extended to our interaction with things as well; and perhaps what is so enrapturing about nature ‘as such’ is that it puts us back into relation with the heterogeneous (often the violent– the sublime?), with what “naturally” RESISTS our human uses and ideas for things (including even the “natural laws” we have deduced, perhaps).

    So, generally, against the “homogenizing view” (correlationism?), these thinkers try to dig underneath and discover (or expose themselves to) the “heterogeneous” in each thing/person/moment— the way that things and people undermine the “equivalizing” that they are subjected to. It’s a matter of exposing ourselves to what resists all these valuations, all these appraisals of objects and people “according to” some rubric of measurement, and instead “evaluating them” according to what, in them, exceeds our grasp, exceeds any evaluation we might make.

    I think there is quite a bit of resonance here with what Whitehead et al. are talking about (though I admit, I could be wrong…). To me, the virtue of OOO is to point out how objects themselves “naturally” escape the human-measures; it pushes philosophy to this same point that lies beyond human measurements, and perhaps beyond “measurement” as such. They ask us, as humans, to begin evaluating things (exposing ourselves to things) from the standpoint of their “inevaluability”… to see things as withdrawn, inaccessible, “absolute”, etc.,…. in exposing ourselves to what, in each thing, person, or moment, escapes the correlationist/human-utilitarian grasp of those things… to somehow enter an experience of things/persons/moments that by definition escapes definition and human appraisal. (This takes language itself to the limit, I think, so you must forgive my tortured sentences…)

    That, at least, is my reading of Nietzsche, Marx, Bataille, Nancy, and Baudrillard. If you’re interested, I have translated a piece by Jean-Luc Nancy that focuses on this question of “absolute value” / “experience”, which you can get to here:, and I’ve also written about the idea of “Priceless Presents” here:

    All the best,

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