Whitehead Vs. Heidegger

Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time was first published in 1927. Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality was first published in 1929. Two enormous philosophy books, almost exact contemporaries. Both responding to the situation (I’d rather not say crisis) of modernity, to the immensity of scientific and technological change, to the dissolution of old certainties, to the fast pace of life, to the massive reorganizations that followed the horrors of World War I. Both taking for granted the inexistence of foundations, not even yearning for them, or fixating on them as absent, but simply going on without concern over their absence. Both anti-essentialist, both anti-positivist, both working out new ways to think, to do philosophy, to exercise the faculty of wonder.
Yet how different these books are in concepts, in affect, in spirit (if I may use that word).
(I admit it: I am setting up an overdrawn, melodramatic confrontation, inspired no doubt by the recently released film Alien Vs. Predator, which I haven’t seen, as well as by the first episode of the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Buffy Vs. Dracula,” which I just watched on DVD).
I’ve long detested Heidegger, for a number of reasons. (Did I ever mention the academic conference where a militant Heideggerian, regarding me with the same scorn and disgust he would have shown if he had accidentally stepped into a pile of dog shit, told me with lofty condescension that my problem was that I was unwilling or unable to “patiently hearken to the voice of Being”?). Heidegger embodies for me, more than any other thinker in the Western tradition, what Nietzsche called the “spirit of gravity.” He’s heavy and morbid, without an ounce of humor or irony or even sense that we human beings are/have bodies. He picks up on the worst part of Nietzsche, the heavy-handed, pompous, self-obsessed, doom-laden, apocalyptic, romantic rhetoric — so stereotypically “Germanic” — of Zarathustra, but completely misses Nietzsche’s gaiety, sarcasm, “French” scepticism, and general sense of dancing over the abyss. I’ve never been able to decide which part of Heidegger is worse: the existential part, all about authenticity and resoluteness and the earth and the dwelling and being-towards-death (i.e. the Nazi side), or the ontological part, with its endless dissection of concepts by returning to their etymological roots, its walking on forest paths, its idiotic hatred of technology, its mythology of (capital-L) Language, its waiting and hearkening, its twisting of its own formulations into an endless process of self-confirmation through self-undoing (i.e. the deconstructionist side).
Whitehead is different. His language is dry, gray, and highly abstract. (Occasionally a joke shimmers through, but rarely; you have to work hard in order to make it to the jokes; and as soon as you’ve gotten one, it is on to something else). But in this degree-zero, “academic,” fussy and almost pedantic prose, Whitehead is continually saying the most astonishing things. His “coldness” (in a Deleuzian sense) or “coolness” (in a McLuhaneque sense) or “neutrality” (in a Blanchotian sense) is in fact the enabling condition of his discourse: it is what permits him the freedom to analyze, to construct, to reorient, to switch direction, to re-ignite the philosophic sense of “wonder” at every step. Whitehead’s style is a kind of strategic counter-investment: it allows him to step away from his own particular passions and interests, without thereby falling into the pretense of a universal, above-it-all, higher knowledge. It’s a kind of detachment that continues to insist upon that from which we have become detached: particulars, singularities, perspectives that are always incomplete and partial (in both senses of this word: partial as opposed to whole, but also partial in the sense of partiality or bias). There is no universal, transcendent point in Whitehead’s cosmos; there are only partialities. But each of these partialities “transcends” all the others.
The cliche objection to “relativism” has always been to point out that the statement “everything is relative” is itself an absolute one, so that any relativist necessarily contradicts him/herself. Of course this is a bogus objection: because the argument depends upon separating the assertion “everything is relative” from the contexts of its utterance, in order to turn it into a universal statement. Whitehead’s neutral style is precisely a way of pointing out how everything is relative, without turning this observation (or really, a potentially infinite series of observations) into a universal.
Whitehead’s philosophy is all about change, creativity, and the production of novelty. There are no entities in the universe according to Whitehead, but only events. Or rather, events (which he usually calls “occasions”) are themselves the only entities. These “occasions” are each of them radically new — each of them is something that never existed before — and indeed, it is only because of this perpetual creativity and novelty that we are even able to think in terms of a “before” and an “after,” of time passing and irreversible — and yet each of them is radically intertwined with, affected by and affecting in its own turn, everything else. Everything is singular, but nothing is isolated.
Whitehead doesn’t ask (as Heidegger does) “why is there something rather than nothing?” (which in itself, is the ultimately nihilistic question: since it is demanding a reason for existence itself, when it is only within existence, and from an existing standpoint, that questions of value and purpose make any sense), but rather: “how is it that there is always something new, rather than just the same old same-old?”. He doesn’t “hearken” to (genuflect before) Language, as Heidegger and his deconstructionist heirs are always doing, but rather notes language’s inadequacies alongside its unavoidability. He doesn’t yearn for a return before, or a leap beyond, metaphysics, but (much more subversively) just does metaphysics, inventing his own categories and working through his own problems, in order to make metaphysics speak what it has usually denied and rejected (the body, inconstancy and change, the relativeness of all perspectives and of all formulations). And he doesn’t “critique” the history of philosophy, but rather twists it in wonderfully ungainly ways, finding, for instance, arguments in Descartes that are themselves already the best response to Cartesian dualism, or anti-idealist moves in Plato.
Leibniz is the classical philosopher with whom Whitehead is most commonly compared. (Deleuze’s only extended discussion of Whitehead, for instance, takes place in a chapter of The Fold, his book on Leibniz); but there are ways in which Whitehead is actually more similar to Spinoza. More of this in a future posting.

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