Panpsychism, Whitehead, and OOO

I am still working, up to the last minute, on my paper for the Whitehead Research Project’s Metaphysics and Things conference next week. My paper is called “Consequences of Panpsychism,” and it argues that we should take the panpsychist aspect of Whitehead seriously. Whitehead is not a vitalist — he doesn’t believe everything is alive. But he does argue that everything has mentality, at least incipiently. Mentality, rather than aliveness, is the requisite for things having agential force. Indeed, mentality is a requisite for aliveness, rather than the reverse. Theorizations about agentiality, or mentality,ought to replace the current mania for theorizing “life.” Also, mentality should be defined in terms of affect — or, what Whitehead calls “feeling,” specifically “conceptual feeling” — rather than in terms of computation or cognition, since feeling is a prior requisite for any sort of computation or cognition.

In the course of writing this, however, I cannot help coming back to my agreements and disagreements with OOO (object-oriented ontology). Just this morning, Levi, responding to a post from notes for a later time, endorsed “agential realism” as an aspect of OOO. The point of OOO is not that everything is passive, or “just” an object, but that (as Latour also says) everything is active and agential. To this extent, I am entirely in accord with OOO. The parts of OOO that I reject are the claims 1) that objects are “substances,” and that they are somehow “withdrawn,” and 2) that (in Graham’s version, if not in Levi’s) causality is problematic, and can only be conceived “vacariously,” through a version of occasionalism.

Another way to put this is to say that what I find valuable and inspiring about OOO are the questions it asks, which I think are necessary and important ones; rather than its particular answers to these questions, which I don’t accept. And this has become one motif of my talk in preparation. I reproduce the relevant paragraphs here:

OOO offers four challenges to contemporary philosophy, four rejections of commonly held post-Kantian doctrines:

1.In the first place, OOO rejects what Quentin Meillassoux calls correlationism. This is the idea that, as Harman puts it, “we cannot think of humans without world, nor world without humans, but only of a primal rapport or correlation between the two. For the correlationist, it is impossible to speak of a world that pre-existed humans in itself, but only of a world pre-existing humans for humans.” To reject correlationism is to accept the meaningfulness of a world that exists, in and for itself, independently of human beings. We need to get away from the sophism that, as Harman sarcastically summarizes it, “what is thought is thereby converted entirely into thought, and that what lies outside thought must always remain unthinkable.” For the whole point of philosophical speculation is to point thought outside itself, to orient thought to that which it cannot grasp or comprehend, to reach outside what Meillassoux calls “the correlationist circle.”

2.In the second place, OOO rejects what Harman calls the philosophy of human access. This is not quite the same thing as correlationism, though it is closely related. In this philosophy, which has dominated Western thought at least since Hume and Kant, “everything is reduced to a question of human access to the world, and non-human relations are abandoned to the natural sciences.” To reject the priority of human access is to recognize that non-human entities are active in themselves, and that they affect one another, even in the absence of human input or observation. All encounters between entities happen on the same ontological level. As Harman puts it, rightly attributing this position to Whitehead, “we can speak in the same way of the relation between humans and what they see and that between hailstones and tar.” Human understanding has no special ontological privilege. We must reject the binary opposition between human subjectivity, intellect, and initiative, on the one hand, and the supposed passivity and inertness of objects, or of mere matter, on the other. Rather, we must join Bruno Latour in seeing a world of nonhuman, as well as human, actants.

3.In the third place, OOO rejects relationalism, or the idea that every entity is entirely determined by, and can be completely described in terms of, its relations to other entities. For relationist thought, “there are no things; structure is all there is.” A structure in this sense is founded upon what Manuel Delanda calls “relations of interiority: the component parts are constituted by the very relations they have to other parts in the whole. A part detached from such a whole ceases to be what it is, since being this particular part is one of its constitutive properties.” To reject this notion of structure, as Harman and Delanda both do, is to recognize that, as Harman puts it, “there can be no relations without relata.” For Delanda, as for Deleuze, “relations are external to their terms. . . a relation may change without the terms changing.” Similarly, for Harman, “objects are irreducible to their relations with other things, and always hold something in reserve from these relations.” There is always more to this particular tree, for instance, than is ever captured in my perception of the tree – or even in the sum total of all the perceptions of the tree by all the other entities that encounter it. This means that the tree must have an inside as well as an outside, an intrinsic nature as well as relational properties.

4.In the fourth place, OOO rejects what Sam Coleman calls smallism, or “the view that all facts are determined by the facts about the smallest things, those existing at the lowest ‘level’ of ontology,” so that “facts about the microphysical determine facts about the chemical, the biological and so on.” Smallism maintains that (in Harman’s summary of it) “all physical things can be reduced to microparticles – so that a table would be nothing over and above the quarks and electrons of which it is made.” Such a doctrine is upheld, not just by hardcore physical reductionists, but by nearly all analytic philosophers, including those, like Coleman, who are inclined towards panpsychism. To reject smallism is to insist upon the integrity, and the actuality, of entities of all sizes. It is to recognize that a table is every bit as real as the microparticles of which it is composed. Harman argues this point by citing Delanda’s multi-level “assemblage theory.” Actual concrete things are always “assemblages: real units made up of subpersonal components.” Instead of tortuously parsing out the alleged differences between ultimate and derived entities, or between mere “aggregates” and “true individuals,” we should accept the actuality of assemblages of all sizes.

I go on to argue that Whitehead already meets all four of these requisites. The first two are pretty obvious, but the third and fourth might seem surprising. It seems to me that Graham’s and Levi’s anti-relationalism is entirely correct when it is a question of what Delanda calls “relations of interiority,” in which a closed totality absolutely determines all its parts (as is the case in Hegel’s dialectic, and Saussure’s theorization of the synchronic structure of language). I do not accept the anti-relationalist argument, however, when it comes to what Delanda calls external relations; rather, I think we should follow William James and Deleuze in seeing a continual florescence of external relations, and of seeing these relations as in themselves perfectly real, as being just as real as the terms they connect are real. Of course terms are never entirely defined by their relations; and terms can disentangle themselves from some relations, and enter into others instead. But at the same time (and here I explicitly disagree with Graham) no term can ever disentangle itself from all relations. That is simply impossible. Deprive me of my relation to oxygen and I die; but my body persists as a thing, and interacts with bacteria that dissolve and eat it. Send my dead body into outer space so that it escapes the bacteria, and it will still be altered by cosmic radiation and other phenomena of interstellar space. Every change in relations turns the term into something different: at times, the change is minor enough (Whitehead would say it is “negligible”) that we speak of the continuity of the term — my trip next week from Detroit to Claremont will only make a negligible difference in who/what I am — but at other times, the change is greater, and we speak of either metamorphosis or breakdown (the caterpillar becomes a butterfly), my dead body is a thing, but a different sort of thing than I was when alive).

Whitehead asserts that the interiority of any entity is a matter of its “privacy,” in which it pursues its “subjective aim.” This is always more than, and other than, its existence for others, its publicity, as a datum once it has perished and thereby achieved what Whitehead calls “objective immortality.” On account of this privacy, an “actual entity” always exists in complete independence of all the other entities with which it is contemporaneous; indeed, this independence is for Whitehead the very definition of contemporaneity. (Relations, to the contrary, are always spread across time; they derive from the past and push into the future, on both sides exceeding the boundaries of the “specious present” of experiential duration). To my mind, Whitehead’s understanding of privacy and subjective aim is sufficient to meet the requirements of OOO’s critique of relationalism — without the need to posit objects as somehow mysteriously and totally “withdrawn.” And this interiority or privacy is precisely what panpsychism identifies as the “mentality” exerted to a greater or lesser degree by all entities. A thing is perfectly publically accessible to other things; but at the same time it retains a certain privacy. It is very possible for other people to get a sense of what I am thinking by observing my interactions with them and with the rest of the world; at the same time, of course, my inner feelings are not experientially available to other people, and they might not even be experientially available to myself. (I think that both the indubitabilty or “incorrigeability” of a feeling of pain, and the hypothesis of an unconscious, are comprehended within the notion of privacy). I find this sort of understanding (things have both an inside and an outside, they couldn’t have one without the other) more plausible than the thesis that objects are entirely “withdrawn,” or that the “intentional object” is radically sundered from the “real object.” A membrane separates inside from outside, while selectively allowing things to cross between inside and outside; but this doesn’t mean that inside and outside are somehow definitively sundered. And a membrane is a better metaphor for this situation, I think, than Graham’s “firewall.”

And if all this is true for me, and for other human beings, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be true for other entities, all the way down, that is to say — as panpsychism argues — for trees and rocks and neutrinos.

As for OOO’s fourth challenge or requisite, I think it is one that Whiteheadians can easily endorse as well. Whitehead says that “actual entities,” or “actual occasions,” are “the completely real things” which ultimately make up the universe. At the same time, he refers to societies (his equivalent of Delanda’s, and Deleuze/Guattari’s assemblages) as “the real actual things that endure.” The point of the difference between occasions and societies is that occasions are needed to explain the development and persistence of societies (or actual things), but societies or things cannot be reduced to the occasions that make them up in the way that physicalist analytic philosophers claim that things can be reduced to the subatomic particles or fields of which they are composed. Things or societies, of all sizes, are entirely real and irreducible. This is where I feel I need to do a lot more work — on the question of societies in Whitehead.

I hope this posting (together with my talk next week, upon which it is based)  doesn’t come of as another polemic about OOO. The point is rather that the encounter with OOO has done a lot to make me think through and sharpen my own claims and distinctions. I need OOO, because it has so powerfully contributed to my own process of working through ideas from Whitehead. My conclusions are different from those of OOO; but I hope they don’t come off as being primarily critiques of OOO. The aim, as it always should be in these exchanges, is to develop my own ideas, not trash the ideas of others.

8 Responses to “Panpsychism, Whitehead, and OOO”

  1. [...] is back (hat tip, Joe Flintham) with A NEW POST ON OOO. The occasion for Steven’s latest thoughts is that he and I are paired up as a two-person [...]

  2. [...] want to second Graham Harman’s point about the usefulness of Shaviro’s most recent post. I am intrigued in particular by Shaviro’s following claim: Whitehead is not a vitalist — [...]

  3. Paul Bains says:

    The theory of relations in ‘The Primacy of Semiosis: an ontology of relations’ explores Deleuze and the scholastic theory of relations. The doctrine of the ‘species’ provides a vicarious causality. The species are ‘vicars’ of the thing….this is classic Thomism.

    Also, it provides a theory of cognition which allows for genuine, if partial knowledge of alterities. We do not become the pebble in knowing it – but we do know the pebble.
    ‘Of course we know, inside our experience, extramentalities whose inner being we do not experience, namely that exist independently of anybody’s noticing them or not. The extramentalities we know inside our respective finite experiences are known in their alterity, to be sure. No psychism would have evolved otherwise.’ (szirko).

  4. [...] an appetizer, Harman and Shaviro have given a preview of the disagreement which will be discussed at their panel. It should be an [...]

  5. [...] clothes? Why don’t the problems I’m encountering seem to bother most folks, other than Steve (and not as much), Adrian, and myself? Either way, I finally just let it go. At some point, if the [...]

  6. michael- says:

    @Paul,

    “genuine, if partial” = precisely. I like to think of knowing as ‘direct but partial’ (see: here)

  7. [...] – some inspiration on privacy from Steve’s Panpsychism, Whitehead, and OOO: Whitehead asserts that the interiority of any entity is a matter of its “privacy,” in which it [...]

  8. [...] not everything is alive. (As Steven Shaviro points out; “Whitehead is not a vitalist – he doesn’t believe everything is alive. But he does [...]

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