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” â€“ or what today are more commonly called “qualia” â€“ 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 â€“ like Nietzsche, Bergson, and Deleuze â€“ 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 â€“ or better, how â€“ 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 â€œquasi-causeâ€ and â€œsurface of inscriptionâ€ 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).