Eternal Objects

This is from the same chapter-in-progress as my previous post. It’s an attempt to work through Whitehead’s concept of “eternal objects,” and show how this concept is related to Deleuze’s notion of the virtual. I kind of feel this is not much more than “Whitehead 101,” but it is only by working things out as slowly and painfully as I am doing here, that I am able to get the concept straight in my own mind. Page numbers refer to Process and Reality. Footnotes omitted.

Alongside events or actual entities, Whitehead also posits what he calls “eternal objects.” These are “Pure Potentials” (22), or “potentials for the process of becoming” (29). If actual entities are singular “occasions” of becoming, then eternal objects provide “the ‘qualities’ and ‘relations’ ” (191) that enter into, and help to define, these occasions. When “the potentiality of an eternal object is realized in a particular actual entity,” it “contribute[es] to the definiteness of that actual entity” (23). It gives it a particular character. Eternal objects thus take on something of the role that universals (48; 158), predicates (186), Platonic forms (44), and ideas (52; 149) played in older metaphysical systems. But we have already seen that, for Whitehead, “concrete particular fact” cannot simply “be built up out of universals”; it is more the other way around. Universals, or “things which are eternal,” can and must be abstracted from “things which are temporal” (40). But they cannot be conceived by themselves, in the absence of the empirical, temporal entities that they inform. Eternal objects, therefore, are neither a priori logical structures, nor Platonic essences, nor constitutive rational ideas. They are adverbial, rather than substantive; they determine and express how actual entities relate to one another, take one another up, and “enter into each others’ constitutions” (148-149). Like Kantian and Deleuzian ideas, eternal objects work regulatively, or problematically.

To be more precise, Whitehead defines eternal objects as follows: “any entity whose conceptual recognition does not involve a necessary reference to any definite actual entities of the temporal world is called an ‘eternal object’ ” (44). This means that eternal objects include sensory qualities, like colors (blueness or greenness) and tactile sensations (softness or roughness), conceptual abstractions like shapes (a helix, or a dodecahedron) and numbers (seven, or the square root of minus two), moral qualities (like bravery or cowardice), physical fundamentals (like gravitational attraction or electric charge), and much more besides. An eternal object can also be “a determinate way in which a feeling can feel. . . an emotion, or an intensity, or an adversion, or an aversion, or a pleasure, or a pain” (291). “Sensa” – or what today are more commonly called “qualia” – are eternal objects; so are affects or emotions; and so are “contrasts, or patterns,” or anything else that can “express a manner of relatedness between other eternal objects” (114). There is, in fact, “an indefinite progression of categories, as we proceed from ‘contrasts’ to ‘contrasts of contrasts,’ and on indefinitely to higher grades of contrasts” (22). The levels and complexities proliferate, without limit. But regardless of level, eternal objects are ideal abstractions that nevertheless (unlike Platonic forms) can only be encountered within experience, when they are “selected” and “felt” by particular actual occasions. For this reason, they are well described as “empirico-ideal notions.”

Whitehead’s use of the word “eternal” might seem to be a strange move, in the context of a philosophy grounded in events, becomings, and continual change and novelty. And indeed, as if acknowledging this, he remarks that, “if the term ‘eternal objects’ is disliked, the term “potentials’ would be suitable” instead (149). But if Whitehead prefers to retain the appellation “eternal objects,” this is precisely because he seeks – like Nietzsche, Bergson, and Deleuze – to reject the Platonic separation between eternity and time, the binary opposition that sets a higher world of permanence and perfection (“a static, spiritual heaven”) against an imperfect lower world of flux (209). The two instead must continually interpenetrate. For “permanence can be snatched only out of flux; and the passing moment can find its adequate intensity only by its submission to permanence. Those who would disjoin the two elements can find no interpretation of patent facts” (338). Actual entities continually perish; but the relations between them, or the patterns that they make, tend to recur, or endure. Thus “it is not ‘substance’ which is permanent, but ‘form.’ ” And even forms do not subsist absolutely, but continually “suffer changing relations” (29). In asserting this, Whitehead converts Plato from idealism to empiricism, just as he similarly converts Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, and Kant

When Whitehead says that forms as well as substances, or eternal objects as well as actual entities, must be accepted as real, he is arguing very much in the spirit of the radical empiricism of William James. For James, experience is the sole criterion of reality; we live in “a world of pure experience.” Classical empiricism has great difficultly in making sense of relations, as well as of emotions, contrasts and patterns, and all the other phenomena that Whitehead classifies as “eternal objects.” Since these cannot be recognized as “things,” or as direct “impressions of sensation,” they are relegated to the status of mental fictions (habits, derivatives, secondary qualities, and so on). But James says that, in a world of pure experience, “relations” are every bit as real as “things”: “the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system.” Whitehead argues, by the same logic, that eternal objects must be accounted as real as the actual entities which they qualify, and which select them, include them, and incarnate them. Eternal objects are real, because they are themselves “experienced relations,” or primordial elements of experience.

But even though eternal objects are altogether real, they are not the same thing as actual entities. Like Deleuze’s virtualities, they are precisely not actual. This is because, in themselves, they are not causally determined, and they cannot make anything happen. Eternal objects “involve in their own natures indecision” and “indetermination” (29); they always imply alternatives, contingencies, situations that could have been otherwise. This patch of wall is yellow, but it might have been blue. This means that their role is essentially passive. “An eternal object is always a potentiality for actual entities; but in itself, as conceptually felt, it is neutral as to the fact of its physical ingression in any particular actual entity of the temporal world” (44). You might say that yellowness “in itself,” understood as a pure potentiality, is utterly indifferent to the actual yellow color of this particular patch of wall. Yellowness per se has no causal efficacy, and no influence over the “decision” by which it is admitted (or not) into any particular actual state of affairs. Eternal objects, like Deleuze’s quasi-causes, are neutral, sterile, and inefficacious, as powerless as they are indifferent.

At the same time, every event, every actual occasion, involves the actualization of certain of these mere potentialities. Each actual entity is determined by what Whitehead calls the ingression of specific eternal objects into it. “The term ‘ingression’ refers to the particular mode in which the potentiality of an eternal object is realized in a particular actual entity, contributing to the definiteness of that actual entity” (23). Each actual entity creates itself, in a process of decision, by making a selection among the potentialities offered to it by eternal objects. The concrescence of each actual entity involves the rejection of some eternal objects, and the active “entertainment,” or “admi[ssion] into feeling” (188), of others. And by a kind of circular process, the eternal objects thus admitted or entertained serve to define and determine the entity that selected them. That is why – or better, how – this particular patch of wall actually is yellow. By offering themselves for actualization, and by determining the very entities that select and actualize them, eternal objects play a transcendental, quasi-causal role in the constitution of the actual world.

Whitehead also explains the difference, and the relation, between eternal objects and actual entities by noting that the former “can be dismissed” at any moment, while the latter always “have to be felt” (239). Potentialities are optional; they may or may not be fulfilled. But actualities cannot be avoided. Indeed, “an actual entity in the actual world of a subject must enter into the concrescence of that subject by some simple causal feeling, however vague, trivial, and submerged” (239). An actual entity can, in fact, be rejected or excluded, by the process of what Whitehead calls a negative prehension: “the definite exclusion of [a given] item from positive contribution to the subject’s own real internal constituion” (41). But even this is a sort of backhanded acknowledgement, an active response to something that cannot just be ignored. Even “the negative prehension of an entity is a positive fact with its emotional subjective form” (41-42). An actual entity has causal efficacy, because in itself it is entirely determined; it is empirically “given,” and this “givenness” means Necessity (42-43). Once actual entities have completed their process, once the ingression of eternal objects into them has been fixed, they “are devoid of all indetermination. . . They are complete and determinate. . . devoid of all indecision” (29). Every event thus culminates in a “stubborn matter of fact” (239), a state of affairs that has no potential left, and that cannot be otherwise than it is. An event consists precisely in this movement from potentiality (and indeterminacy) into actuality (and complete determination). The process of actualization follows a trajectory from the mere, disinterested (aesthetic) “envisagement” of eternal objects (44) to a pragmatic interest in some of these objects, and their incorporation within “stubborn fact which cannot be evaded” (43).

Still to be worked out:

  • The genesis of temporality in the process of actualization. Whitehead describes the future as “merely real, without being actual” (238) — the same phrasing that Deleuze uses to describe the virtual.
  • Eternal objects as the focus of Whitehead’s own version of Kant’s transcendental argument. Like Kant, Whitehead seeks to critique positivist empiricism on the one hand, and dogmatic idealism on the other.
  • Part of the way that both Whitehead and Deleuze convert Kant is that, where Kant’s transcendental argument is devised to answer the epistemological question What can we know? (and also the questions What ought we to do? and, For what might we hope?), Whitehead and Deleuze instead found their transcendental reflection on trying to answer the question How are novelty and change possible? How can we account for a future that is different from the past?
  • Double causality: In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze writes of the Stoic split in causality; there is real causality — causes relate to other causes in the depths of bodies, and quasi-causality — effects relate to other effects on the surfaces. In Anti-Oedipus, the distinction between depths and surfaces is abandoned; but we still have a distinction between desiring production and the quasi-causal anti-production of the Body without Organs. How does Deleuze’s split causality relate to the double causality in Whitehead, where causal efficacy or efficient causality refers to the inheritance of conditions and orientations from the past, and final causality is the entity’s “decision,” or creative self-actualization in the final concrescence? Both Deleuze and Whitehead thus posit a second causality that has to do with the virtual, in opposition to the linear cause-and-effect of the entirely actual. Can this be related in any meaningful way to Kant’s distinction, in the 2nd Critique, between “causality as natural mechanism” and “causality as freedom”?
  • Whitehead’s concept of God, and Deleuze (or rather, Deleuze Guattari’s) Body without Organs. This is the comparison that I started out trying to get to. Both God and the BwO are non-totalizable “wholes” in which all potential is contained; both can be regarded as a “quasi-cause” and “surface of inscription” for all events, in such a way that it does not determine these events, but allows precisely for their indeterminacy and continuing openness to difference in the future. Both God and BwO need to be posited as a consequence of the very logic of multiplicity and open totalities with which Whithead and Deleuze/Guattari are working. Both God and BwO are traversed by similar dualities (the primordial vs the consequent nature of God in ; the BwO as body of Capital in Anti-Oedipus and the emphasis on constructing a “full” BwO in A Thousand Plateaus).

14 thoughts on “Eternal Objects”

  1. “The genesis of temporality in the process of actualization. Whitehead describes the future as “merely real, without being actual” (238) — the same phrasing that Deleuze uses to describe the virtual.”

    this is huge! I have been thinking about this in trying to understand events.

    I am surprised you don’t mention discussion from _the fold_ although I might just be wanting you to blog your whole book at once!! In Deleuze’s gloss of Whitehead in the “What is an Event” chapter he goes through Whitehead’s concept of prehension. Maybe the concresence of prehensions would also be a suitable way to talk about the temporality of actualization? So like the two floors of the ‘baroque house’ as a scaffold of virtual conceptual prehensions and actual sensual prehensions that is unfolded from duration to ‘abstraction’. (and conceptual and sensual in the expanded whitehead sense of all monad-entities that make decisions) Massumi does this in _PotV_ through ‘possibilization’ that I mentioned in another blog post comments’ thread, which would correlate with your ‘pragmatic interest’ in the trajectory of actualization above.

    Deleuze writes that “Comprehension of the concept is distributive and not collective” (114). He is writing about Leibniz, but maybe the distinction between distributive relationality and collective relationality could be useful for understanding the (extremely complex) production of relations necessary in the movement from ‘duration’ to ‘crystals’ of time as heterogeneous materiality. ‘Crystals’ to use Deleuze’s _Cinema_ terminology (or ‘machine’ in the sense that Deleuze talked about “language as a machine for producing sense” in _TLoS_ but I am not sure if this is the same ‘machinic’ as in _ATP_ or in Guattari”s work). ‘Heterogeneous’ because shards of ‘crystal’ are embeded in the torsional flux of duration (ha a bit like a superman fortress of solitude) and this can be deduced in various discussions of memory and bergson. (Actually what if ‘memory’ from bergson was read via whitehead in expanded sense of conceptual prehension??) ‘Materiality’ following Negri in “Alma Venus” where creation is a force but also from Whitehead where prehensions are vectoral.

    I tend to think of Deleuze’s expanded discussion of singularities in _The Fold_ (expanded from _TLoS_) involves outlining the different singularities as they pertain to this process of (un)folding genesis. In _TLoS_ this is glossed whenever he writes “emits a singularity or stream of singularities” as it seems that Deleuze came to understand that not all of these singularities are comparable in the same relational way.

    One question about your draft chapter extract above regarding this line:

    “Like Kantian and Deleuzian ideas, eternal objects work regulatively, or problematically.”

    In what sense do you mean ‘regulatively’? I ask because grouping problematically and regulatively through an ‘or’ seems a bit odd. So ‘problematic’ in the sense that Deleuze defines singularities/events in _TLoS_ (54-55)? Is ‘regulatively’ a Kantian term? Deleuze writes: “Kant was without doubt the first to accept the problematic not as a fleeting uncertainty but as the very object of the Idea, and thereby as an indispenable horizon of all that occurs or appears” (54)

  2. just read the comments in the other thread and your example to dominic about the constantly shifting fitness landscape is how i imagine the unfolding scaffold of the ‘baroque house’ above.

    i have a feeling that Deleuze called this the “zone of indiscernibility” for good reason!!!!

  3. Glen, thanks for this — there is a lot there for me to try to process and think through.

    Just briefly:
    “Regulative ideas” do, indeed, come from Kant. Deleuze links the regulative to the problematic in Difference and Repetition, pp 168ff. Maybe there should be an “and” instead of an “or.”

    In terms of temporality — this relates to part of the chapter that I have not posted here. One of the differences between Whitehead and Deleuze is that for Deleuze (as for Bergson), the bedrock assumption is continuity (of time). Whereas Whitehead says that reality is ultimately atomic or discontinuous, so that there is “no continuity of becoming, but only a becoming of continuity”(PR 35). An individual becoming — an “actual occasion” or “actual entity” — cannot be temporally divided, it is a discrete and singular “happening” that does not change. Change is rather defined by Whitehead as the passage between such occasions or becomings. What this means is that, for Whitehead, time is quantized (as is space) (this is something that Lee Smolin and other physicists who dissent from the hegemonic belief in string theory have been working with for some time). Each actual occasion is a quantum of temporality, and time and space (or spacetime) are generated by, and out of, the occasions (rather than the occasions already being in time, or in spacetime). So actual occasions would be a level of reality that is more basic than Bergsonian duration.

    I am not sure where to go with all of this yet. But it strikes me as highly significant. It is directly relevant to issues of how to think of the future (as real but not actual) and how to think about change and novelty (or, from my point of view, how to affirm a sort of change/novelty/innovation that is not reducible to mere capitalist changes of fashion, to “innovation” just for the sake of getting people to buy more, and always newer, stuff).

  4. i was getting more at the problematic of temporality as part of the (at least) two-step individuation process from Simondon that Deleuze references in D&R (246). So ‘crystals’ and ‘machine’ as a way to talk about metastable preindividual fields from which individuation _continually_ occurs as a process of transduction.

    but I didn’t realise that whitehead talked about ‘passage’ as between becomings. I need to read P&R again!!

    I was working from his earlier “The Concept of Nature” where he writes (or said, as lecture):

    “Time is known to me as an abstraction from the passage of events. The fundamental fact which renders this abstraction possible is the passing of nature, its development, its creative advance, and combined with this fact is another characteristic of nature, namely the extensive relation between events. These two facts, namely the passage of events and the extension of events over each other, are in my opinion the qualities from which time and space originate as abstractions.” (34)
    “The disclosure in sense-awareness of the structure of events classifies events into those which are discerned in respect to some further individual character and those which are not otherwise disclosed except as elements of the structure. These signified events must include events in the remote past as well as events in the future. We are aware of these as the far off periods of unbounded time. But there is another classification of events which is also inherent in sense-awareness. These are the eventswhich share the immediacy of the immediately present discerned events. These are the events whose characters together with those of the discerned events comprise all nature present for discernment. […] (52)
    “The unity of this general present fact is expressed by the concept of simultaneity. The general fact is the whole simultaneous occurrence of nature which is now for sense-awareness. This general fact is what I have called the discernible. But in future I will call it a ‘duration,’ meaning thereby a certain whole of nature which is limited only by the property of being a simultaneity. Further in obedience to the principle of comprising within nature the whole terminus of sense-awareness, simultaneity must not be conceived as an irrelevant mental concept imposed upon nature. Our sense-awareness posits for immediate discernment a certain whole, here called a ‘duration’; thus a duration is a definite natural entity. A duration is discriminated as a complex of partial events, and the natural entities which are components of this complex are thereby said to be ‘simultaneous with this duration.’ Also in a derivative sense they are simultaneous with each other in respect to this duration. Thus simultaneity is a definite natural relation. The word ‘duration’ is perhaps unfortunate in so far as it suggests a mere abstract stretch of time. This is not what I mean. A duration is a concrete slab of nature limited by simultaneity which is an essential factor disclosed in sense-awareness.
    Nature is a process.” (53)

    so my point was about duration as a complex of partial events, where the ‘complex of partial events’ are metastable virtualities that serve as ‘abstract machines’ in the nonlinear transductive passage or correspondence between historical Chronos and eternal Aion. The nonlinearity between the virtual and the actual in genesis or creation is the crazy (indiscernible) complex bit.

    i totally share your perspective about how to think beyond the capitalist apparatus of capture for innovation, etc. That is the subject of my essay I am currently writing about gaming, the gaming-event, and the virtual gaming machine as the next stage of the commodity (beyond the spectacle). Every commodity becomes a ‘game’, this subsumes contingency into the event of the commodity. I read this as an emergent phenomenon that attempts to circumvent the paralysis of affective flatline herald by two forms of saturation (market commodity saturation, ie ‘new’ commodities, and affective saturation through the circular temporality that conditions the possibile within the spectacle of the commodity, ie the commodity produces a ‘new’). Such a flatline — and correlative subcultures of boredom and the spectacle styles of catatonia — would be catastrophic for the advertising-exchange-consumption spiral of contemporary exchange relations. “Consumer confidence” is a measure of the inverse entranced stimulation in the capacities of the market, etc.

  5. Glen,

    The question is how, if at all (I am not sure) Whitehead’s take on temporality changes between The Concept of Nature and Process and Reality. I think that it did change somewhat, if only because Whitehead was rethinking the consequences of Einstein’s relativity. His book on relativity came out, I think, in between Concept of Nature and PR — though I haven’t read it, and probably would not be able to understand its mathematics. Stengers says that in the relativity book Whitehead took a risk that didn’t pan out — proposing a somewhat alternative explanation to Einstein’s, but one that had mostly the same mathematical consequences. And I also seem to remember reading somewhere that by the time of PR, Whitehead had in fact rejected his own relativity book and tried to rethink duration and simultaneity in more Einsteinian terms — there are passages in PR which talk about how simultaneity is not absolute, as well as the whole section on The Theory of Extension, with its “flat loci” and “strains,” which is definitely the part of PR that (partly because it is the most mathematical part?) I understand the least. But that is where he talks about spatialization — and part of how he differs from Bergson, I think (I am not sure of this) is that he sees temporalization as going along with spatialization, and asserts the priority of time/duration over space/extension in a more qualified manner than Bergson does.

    But this is the aspect of Whitehead where I really feel out of my depth; and I cannot even begin to think about how it relates to the Simondon/Deleuze stuff that you are citing on crystals and individuation as forms of temporalization…

    As for the commodity/innovation stuff, this is where Max Barry (whom you have mentioned a number of times on your blog) might really be helpful.

  6. This is interesting, thanks, but where do reconstructions like this lead? Will this help you create original ideas or is it the end in itself? I am not sure what kind of meaning a reconstruction has. You quote theorists so much that I wonder where your ideas come in.

  7. Steven, I hate to be rude by jumping in midstream but I have only recently begun following your blog closely (it looks like I’ve really been missing out by not following your writing more closely). Am I correct in surmising that these recent posts are part of a larger book project you’re working on? If so, could you say a bit about what you’re developing or arguing or refer me to a post that outlines this? I was exceptionally pleased to see your development of the Kant/Deleuze connections with regard to problematic ideas in your previous post. Are you working through any of the connections to Maimon and Maimon’s critique of Kant? As a way of shamelessly pimping my own book, I devote three chapters to the Deleuze-Kant-Maimon-Bergson connection vis a vis the ontology of problems in my own forthcoming study of Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism, Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence. Until the publication of de Beistegui’s Truth and Genesis (and even there), there has hardly been any sustained or serious discussion of Deleuze’s account of individuation, actualization, and indi-different/ciation in the secondary literature, which is a significant problem in interpretations of Deleuze as this goes straight to the core of his thought. I’m thus very excited to see the work you’re developing here. As an additional self-promotion, you’ll find various posts devoted to these issues at Larval Subjects under the tag of “individuation”.

  8. Sinthome, thanks for your comments. I read your blog regularly, and I am looking forward to your book.

    In terms of my own work, I’ve worked on Deleuze, on and off, for a long time; I have been especially interestedin the Kant/Deleuze connection. But I have never read Maimon or many of the other less familiar figures Deleuze talks about in Difference and Repetition. And overall I have to admit that I am weaker on the intricacies of Difference and Repetition than I am with regard to many other of Deleuze’s books.

    But my current (theoretical) focus is mostly on Whitehead.

    I am currently trying to cobble together a book, partly with articles I have previously published, and partly with new stuff, on Kant, Whitehead, and Deleuze.

    Though this is something of an interruption of my other in-progress book project — the one I am probably more impassioned about — The Age of Aesthetics, which is not really a philosophy or theory book at all, but more a work of science-fictional politico-aesthetic speculation.

  9. Both God and BwO need to be posited as a consequence of the very logic of multiplicity and open totalities with which Whithead and Deleuze/Guattari are working

    Yes , the logic of multiplicity, or paraphrasing one of Russell’s yawps, from phucked-up premises, anything follows………….whether God or postmod idealism………………………………

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