Saturday, August 13, 2011

Peirce, Not Whitehead, as a Source of Process Thought

In recent discussion of object-oriented ontology, especially at Knowledge Ecology, especially per my probing its commitments to achieve greater understanding on my part, I espoused a commitment to emergentism and teleology within the context of an emergentist naturalism (per Dewey, which I did not mention then).  I also have been blogging and discussing internal vs. external relations and what an instantiation of such a relation is, i.e., what a relation exists as.

In this vein, Leon of After Nature has posted a link to an article on Hartshorne on internal and external relations. For those not familiar with Perice, this is enlightening:

"Peirce, on the other hand, provided suitable categories for expressing Hartshorne’s metaphysics of feeling and also provided the doctrine of the continuum which enabled him to develop a theory of emergent possibilities in contrast to Whitehead’s doctrine of eternal objects."

I have wondered, when discussing my Peirce-Deweyan position to interlocutors who know something about Whitehead but not Peirce, whether they realize how different the position is.  Having recently discussed Levi Bryant's position here, I think that our inquiries are complementary on the subject of potentiality and emergence.  I am not sure that is the case object-oriented ontology in general.


  1. I've been appreciating your engagements with these issues, Jason. Having encountered both Whitehead and James for some time now, it seems that I will need to expand and explore Pierce, Harsthorne, and Dewey more thoroughly. I've copied some citations you might be interested in, courtesy of friend and colleague Sam Mickey (who has been following some of the discussions online). The first one is from Harman, the second from Bryant:

    We have a universe made up of objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects. The reason we call these objects ‘substances’ is not because they are ultimate or indestructible, but simply because none of them can be identified with any (or even all) of their relations with other entities. None of them is a pristine kernel of substantial unity unspoiled by interior parts. We never reach some final layer of tiny components that explains everything else, but enter instead into an indefinite regress of parts and wholes. Every object is both a substance and a complex of relations. (Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics, p. 85)

    While we readily acknowledge that all objects have their genesis, this genesis is a genesis from other objects or discrete individuals, and in many instances is productive of new individual entities. Consequently, we may retain terms like ‘pre-individual’ or ‘transcendental’ field if we like, so long as we understand that this field is not something other than objects, but consists of nothing but objects. (Bryant, “The Ontic Principle,” Speculative Turn, p. 270)

  2. Thanks, Adam.

    Now I know that Harman is more complicated than his "Vicarious Causation" article, because that quotation appears to conflict with it. As For Bryant, we came to an understanding. Regardless, I will eventually have to read their explanation to the obvious question, why objects? I.e., this issue can be addressed in some many ways--why this way?

    Dewey historicizes and biologizes Peirce, but in a non-systematic fashion. I can make reading recommendations if you'd like, although I'd be tempted to recommend secondaries over primaries as that would give more mileage. I felt that way about reading Acquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles--I eventually stopped reading it and just read Kretzmann on it. One must read a LOT of Dewey to understand him.

    One thing that I haven't seen in the OOO discussion that Dewey has is an "act theoretic perspective" that was seminal in what is now act theory and symbolic interactionism in sociology and communication. First we act, and then we perceive. Thereafter, we might understand.

    Finally, I've been withholding discussion of the core of my own work until it is accepted for publication. It's on pragmatic theories of imagination and is complementary of Mark Johnson's work if you know of it.

  3. Jason,

    Peirce is definitely moving towards the center of my radar nowadays. When I first encountered Whitehead's ideas at 19 through other thinkers (Terence McKenna was actually the first person I remember mentioning his name), it was mostly his understanding of time and evolution that intrigued me. When I actually read him for myself several years later, it was his "eternal objects" that most confused me. I'd assumed he was really a PROCESS philosopher, but then again he seemed to believe in an infinite set of perfect substances existing outside of time. But then I read more of him, and read him again, and read what other people had to say about him. One must read a lot of Whitehead to understand him. After a few more years of studying Whitehead, I now think he really is a process philosopher, not despite of, but because his panentheistic scheme includes "eternal objects." He describes eternal objects as themselves deficient in actuality. They only become actual as ingredients in the process of concrescence. In terms of the concrescence of the Cosmos, eternal objects cannot be understood in isolation from God's primordial, atemporal valuation of some finite set of ideal possibilities seeking realization in the world. It is impossible to conceive of eternal objects as they were in the pure potentiality of Creativity prior to God's definite decision among them, because strictly speaking, they did not and do not exist at all. And because God's primordial nature cannot be understood in isolation from his consequent nature, eternal objects are also to be understood as brought into being through the prehensions of finite actual occasions and their societies. In short, "eternal objects" may not be all that different from "emergent possibilities." How did Peirce integrate God into his metaphysics? Was he more like James, who thought God was useful for moral and psychological reasons, rather than Whitehead, who found God necessary ontologically and cosmologically?


    I'm wondering if "object" in Harman is basically the simplified version of a complex of Whiteheadian ideas. Whitehead distinguishes between actual occasions/atoms of experience and societies of actual occasions. He further distinguishes between organically-ordered societies and aggregated societies. Harman makes no such distinctions, since all of these are simply "objects" in his system. This is probably helpful in some ways, but misleading in others, since it still seems important to me for an ontology to be able to account for the both the differences and the similarities between a car engine, a brontosaurus, a pile of rotting tomatoes, a star, a lady bug, a mountain, and a human being. As far as the last object on that list goes, I think both Harman and Whitehead are insufficiently cosmotheandric (in the sense described here:

  4. Matt,

    I am guessing as my Whitehead knowledge is not sufficient, but would the eternal objects be the being of universals/generals? That was a major issue for Peirce and the scholastic realists who argued against nominalism. Peirce's encyclopedia entry on Berkeley, where he makes this argument, convinced me that this is a serious issue.

    To keep it concrete, ask yourself this. How is it that we can teach thousands of years of children what a triangle is and have them identify it through all the various contexts in which that may occur? The conclusion, loosely put, is that there must be something to its "subsistence" that is not adequately described by, for instance, behaviorial theories of meaning like Wittgenstein's or the neopragmatists.

    So, I am guessing that they're related, but even if they are not, I think this point is a helpful one. I struggle with it since it seems counter-intuitive.

    As for the connection of "eternal objects" and "emergent possibilities," that is not the proper connection. "Emergent possibilities" in the sense that I use it means "existential possibilities" or "real possibilities" or "potentiality." Hence, it invokes secondness rather than firstness, especially since pure possibility as firstness is atemporal, whereas emergence is a temporal concept.

    As for God in the metaphysics of Peirce, I am not well-versed enough in that aspect of his thought. I do try to be cautious in my statements about thinkers, and do not feel sufficiently studied to speak on it.

  5. Jason - Yes, bring on the recommendations!

    Matt - For Harman, each level of entity that Whitehead distinguishes is equally an object. I see both positive and negative elements to this move, as you note. The "flatness" of the flat ontologies is always where people take issue (the Whiteheadians for the reason you just mentioned, it also came up in the IE reading group when discussing the sections on "depth" and "span"). I'm looking forward to Harman's paper for the Sept. talks on "Four Common Objections to OOO." I bet you this issue is on the list.

    More general comments - I think we have a lot more to look forward to here. Latour, as has been rumored for a long time, has a rather weighty seeming tome thats going to appear next year where he distinguishes between several different "modes" of existence. Apparently, there is a whole chunk of his ontology he has been developing since the '80s that deals precisely with the "flatness" issue, and it seems that we are approaching its release, finally!

    As for Whitehead in general, I have a few thoughts. I think there is certainly an ethics to what he was doing, but it is not explicit enough. What I have seen people do with Whiteheadian ethics ends up drawing in several other fields, with Whitehead operating as a sort of background figure. The OOO merger between phenomenology, process philosophy, ANT, and Levinasian ethics, on the other hand, makes it stand out in many ways from Whitehead, and indeed goes beyond him.

    I think Whitehead is blinded by his own orientation as a mathematical philosopher in ways that make him aesthetically verbose and inattentive to several issues I have previously brought him to task for: feminism, postcolonialism, deconstruction, and I'm not sure if there is anything like a strong concept of "alterity" in his writings. For me these are essential elements to incorporate into a 21st century ontology. Of course, the OOO view of these ideas differs from person to person (I think Morton is perhaps the only person who is fond of Derrida in the OOO camps). For my tastes (as is probably obvious from the OOE essay) I am quite comfortable rethinking deconstruction in an OOO framework. Again, something I don't find as available in Whitehead.

  6. Adam,


    On Peirce, I'll name the basic theories that continue into Dewey, although Dewey absorbed them and their terminology with only a rare reference to Peirce; he did the same for Whitehead starting in his middle period. He also transformed them without comment, and part of the Dewey scholarship is a tug-of-war between how much Peirce (or Whitehead) to read into Dewey. My selection will show a bias towards metaphysics, phenomenology, and social psychology.

    On Peirce, one needs basic familiarity with his theories of meaning, habit, synechism, tychism, all aspects of the triad, etc. Basic understanding of Hegel, James, Bergson, the British/Scottish empiricists, and Darwinian thought is also helpful. I can explain why in detail if asked.

    general introduction
    The most recent introductory synoptic exposition of Dewey is James Campbell's Understanding John Dewey. He de-emphasizes metaphysics and all but eliminates the phenomenology while emphasizing the social, cultural, political, education, etc. I'd skip it if you want metaphysics, but it is one of the dominant general introductions. I haven't yet found a general introduction that I like, but I also don't think that any one introduction can do justice to all the various viable interpretations. Dewey did not write an introduction, but we can make do with the following compilation. The Essential Dewey, Vols. I&II, eds. Larry Hickman and Thomas Alexander.

    I would recommend Thomas Alexander's John Dewey's Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature. It discusses aesthetics (both in the usual and Kantian sense), metaphysics, phenomenology, and is known for explicating Dewey's reinvention of Aristotelian metaphysics, especially in its temporal and emergent aspects. It also covers most of the basic concepts and references much continental philosophy. The correlative primaries to read are Experience and Nature and Art as Experience.

    To understand Dewey's theory of value and valuation, I recommend James Gouinlock's John Dewey's Theory of Value. It is uncontroversially the basic text on the topic. Notable points. Dewey's theory of value/valuation shares a lot of similarities with Scheler as articulated in "Ordo Amoris." Moreover, Dewey's theory of value is also 3/4ths of his theory of agency. The correlative primary text is Theory of Valuation.

    Easily, Victor Kestenbaum's The Phenomenological Sense of John Dewey, wherein he compares Dewey to Merleau-Ponty. Alexander claims that Dewey and MP were intellectual cousins.

    Hence, in sum, I recommend Alexander, Kestenbaum, and Gouinlock to get the metaphysics, phenomenology, aesthetics, agency/human freedom, etc.

    Note that I link the major journals of classical and neoclassical pragmatism on my main page.

  7. Imagination

    Thomas Alexander, "Pragmatic Imagination," Transactions of the C.S. Peirce Society, Vol. XXVI, No. 3 (Summer 1990). Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987),

    Alexander's article may require his other book, already mentioned, to grasp the full extent of what he's saying.