Whitehead on Feelings

Here is the text of the talk I gave this past week at the International Whitehead Studies conference in Claremont, California. It is a bit rough and fragmentary, and it doesn’t have a proper conclusion. But since I do not know when, or even if, I will expand it into a proper article, I am posting it here.

I am especially interested in what Whitehead calls feeling. The word is everywhere in Process and Reality. But it is not necessarily used in the ways we might expect. Whitehead insists that "the word feeling is a mere technical term." He says that he is using it in order to designate "that functioning through which the concrescent actuality appropriates the datum so as to make it its own." At another point, Whitehead defines feeling as "the term used for the basic generic operation of of the actual entity in question. Feelings are variously specialized operations, effecting a transition into subjectivity."

In other words, "feeling" for Whitehead means capture and appropriation, and the form of subjectivity that arises from all this. Feeling as "a mere technical term" is pretty much equivalent to what Whitehead elsewhere calls prehension: a more unusual word that doesn’t have common-language connotations (although we recognize it in composite words like apprehension and comprehension). Strictly speaking, a feeling is a positive prehension; Whitehead contrasts this to negative prehension, a mode in which things are not felt, but rather "eliminate[d] from feeling." Positive and negative prehensions are the way that any entity constitutes itself in the process of responding to other entities that precede it. In every encounter, you either feel whatever it is that you have encountered, or else you actively reject it from feeling. Most importantly, an entity encounters, feels, and picks up from, its own state of being in the immediate past, which is to say in "time-spans of the order of magnitude of a second, or even of fractions of a second." But an entity also encounters other entities in its vicinity. And ultimately, an entity encounters – at least to some extent, though quite often this extent is "negligable" – its entire world, whch is to say, in the terminology of physics, everything within the light cone of the entity.

Explicitly specifying that "feeling" is just a technical term is a way of warning us that we shouldn’t take it as anthropomorphically as we normally would. On Whitehead’s account, a tree has feelings – but they are probably quite different from the feelings that human beings have. A tree may well feel assaulted, for instance; we know that trees (and other plants) release pheromones when insects start eating their leaves. These emissions both act as a chemical attack on the predator, and warn other trees (or, indeed, other parts of the same tree) to take defensive measures as well. It is not ridiculous, therefore, to claim that a tree has feelings. However, it is unlikely that a tree would ever feel insulted or humiliated – these are human feelings that have no place in the life of trees.

Of course, if Whitehead had really wanted to separate the concept of feeling entirely from our human sense of the term, he could have avoided the word entirely – since it is already synonymous to the technical term prehension. That way he could have easily sidestepped all this baggage of already-existing connotations. Since he didn’t, I must assume that Whitehead wanted to draw on that baggage – even though he also pushes it aside by claiming to be using "a mere techincal term." Why might this be? Whitehead wants us to expand our idea of what feelings are beyond the human context; but at the same time he does not want to completely separate it from human experience. The feelings of a tree are quite different from the feelings of human beings, but there is nonetheless a certain degree of affinity between them.

This, of course, is the point at which many people will accuse Whitehead of anthropmorphism and projection. We can respond to this objection with Jane Bennett’s maxim that anthropomorphism helps us to avoid the far worse problems of anthropocentrism. After all, she notes, "too often the philosophical rejection of anthropomorphism is bound up with a hubristic demand that only humans and God can bear any traces of creative agency." In other words, attributing feeling to trees helps to shake us from our all-too-human, self-congratulatory belief that we are totally unlike all other entities: such as Robert Brandom’s view that we are sapient, whereas other living things are merely sentient. But actually, I don’t think that Whitehead is being anthropomorphic at all: rather, he is inverting the direction of anthropomorphic projections. For Whitehead, human feelings are in fact the exemplification, within our own experience, of a broader kind of process that is far more widely distributed among entities in the world. I cannot remember who first said this, but Whitehead’s actual procedure is – far from attributing human qualities to other organisms –to try to find more general processes, of which the human version that we are familiar with is just one, not necessarily privileged, example. Whitehead’s procedure is actually what Charles Sanders Peirce calls abduction.

Nonetheless, even with all these explanations, Whitehead’s use of feeling as a mere techincal term remains a bit counter-intuitive. He shores up his position by appealing to a number of philosophical precedents . He says that "this use of the term ‘feeling’ has a close analogy to Alexander’s use of the term ‘enjoyment’; and has also some kinship with Bergson’s use of the term ‘intuition.’ (Just as an aside, I wonder whether it might be a good idea to go back and look at Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity: I have never read it, but Whitehead clearly thinks highly of it, and Deleuze mentions it in passing as a great book).

In any case, Whitehead also – and more surprisingly than with his citations of Alexander and Bergson – closely associates his use of the word feeling with Descartes’ use of the equivalent Latin term sentire. Didier Debaise discusses this connection in his new book L’appât des possibles. For Descartes, sentire, the act of feeling, is the one indubitable fact of existence – my cogito really reduces to a sentio, since even if the content of the feeling is delusive, the fact of having a feeling is not. (Debaise implicitly draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s substitution of sentio for cogito). (It is worth noting that Whitehead quite frequently draws from the history of philosophy in this way; he find precedents by isolating crucial propositions from an earlier thinker whose general, overall position is entirely opposed to his own).

I am entirely convinced by Debaise’s reading, which is deeper and more complex than what I have space to discuss here. But I would like to point to another, equally odd philosophical borrowing in Whitehead’s discussion of feeling. After citing Alexander and Bergson, and before moving on to Descartes, Whitehead notes that "a near analogy [for his own use of the term ‘feeling’] is Locke’s use of the term ‘idea’, including ‘ideas of particular things’." The qualification of "particular things" is important. At several points in Process and Reality, Whitehead notes how – even though this contradicts Locke’s overall sensationalism – Locke nonetheles speaks of ideas that are "determined to one particular existent." What this means, for Whitehead, is that "in some sense one actual existent repeats itself in another actual existent." There is a lot to unpack here. I will only note two things. In the first place, an entity prehends, or feels, an entire prior entity: meaning the entity as a whole, rather than just its particular qualities. I see a tree, not just an aggregation of points of green (leaves) and grey (bark). I feel the entity itself, as well as feeling its "secondary qualities" (which are what Whitehead calls eternal objects). The "data" that we perceive are not just atomistic impressions; rather, "the datum includes its own interconnections."

In the second place, when Whitehead says that an entity "repeats itself", he means that entities do not just represent other entities, or the sensa emitted by other entities, as private mental pictures: rather, the earlier entity really is present in a certain way in the later one. I discuss this at length in my article "Whitehead on Causality and Perception." For Whitehead, causality and perception are the same thing. Or, more precisely: when an entity perceives another entity, this means that it is being affected by that other entity; perception in this way is a subset of being-affected in general, since entities also affect other entities in ways that are not immediately perceived; the sum of all these affections are what we mean by causality. As Michael Halewood mentioned to me, this means that Whitehead understands causality , not as a "law of nature," but rather as the tendency for the present to conform to the immediate past. Such is the baseline, or basic condition, of becoming for Whithead; although it is partly overcome when an entity introduces novelty in its prehension of a previous entity, rather than merely conforming to it.

There are several other places in Progress and Reality where Whitehead refers his own notion of feeling to Locke’s notion of ideas. For instance:

the terms ‘prehension’ and ‘feeling’ are to be compared with the various significations of Locke’s term ‘idea.’ But they are adopted as more general and more neutral terms than ‘idea’ as used by Locke, who seems to restrict them to conscious mentality.

And again:

Locke’s term idea, in his primary use of it in the first two books of the Essay, means the determinate ingression of an eternal object into the actual entity in question. But he also introduces the limitation to conscious mentality, which is here abandoned."

The important point here is that subjective experience need not involve, and can be detached from, consciousness. On the one hand, Whitehead catergorically insists that "apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness." But he also continually reminds us that most of this "experience of subjects" is nonconscious. We feel more than we can know. And many organisms feel events in the world, without necessarily being conscious of what they feel. Trees for instance, have feelings, as many recent studies have shown (see, for instance, What a Plant Knows, by Daniel Chamovitz). Trees sense and feel the sunlight; they sense and feel water in the ground; they sense and feel when insects eat their leaves. But none of this necessarily means that trees are overtly conscious; most likely, they are not.

Whitehead’s distinction between feeling and consciousness helps to illuminate certain deadlocks in the contemporary philosophy of mind. Many philosophers – David Chalmers is a good example – insist upon a supposed special quality of consciousness, its irreducibility to physical process. Other philosophers – Daniel Dennett for example – deny that consciousness has any special qualities; but in giving a fully physical explanation, they end up by explaining it away. Galen Strawson has recentlly suggested that both positions are fallacious. On the one hand, there is no evidence, in the mind or elsewhere, for anything that transcends the physical. On the other hand, though, we don’t really know everything that physical processes or materiality can do; there is no ground for claiming that physicality somehow excludes mentality. I am inclined to agree with Strawson here; but the larger, Whiteheadian point is that the issue gets entirely confused when we simply equate mentality with consciousness. Neurobiologists have shown that many and perhaps most mental processes occur nonconsciously, and may well be absoutely inaccessible to consciousness. But we need not assume, as neurobiologists and philosophers of mind generally do, that all this nonconscious mental activitty can rightly be described as computation. Whitehead’s discussion of feeling gives us a broader picture of mental functioning than cognitive psychology does. I cannot develop this here, but my hunch is that feeling in this sense is a necessary precondition for cognition, but is not in itself cognitive.