Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Twilight Moon and Radiant Heavens: Seeing Process Philosophy Clearly

The following is a repost of my comment at Adam's Knowledge Ecology here where he addresses Ben's post at Naught Thought here about the "Twilight" and fuzziness of process philosophy, especially as it defends itself against object-oriented ontology.  Here, as a response, I lay out some of my Peirce-Deweyan position to begin getting explicit.


The more I read, the more I want to enter these conversations, and the less prepared I feel as every time I try to grasp OOO it slips away and I was perhaps arguing against a straw man.  I thank Levi again for his explanations that cleared things up for me per his view.  Peirce and Whitehead are extremely clear, and thus I think the fuzziness might be due to miscommunication and misunderstanding.

For instance, as I understand process, or as I write on it, your following statement is just assumed.

 "Each object is simultaneously substance and process, with each one reversing into the other depending on specific encounters with other objects. Though at each point of encounter, all objects are integral insofar as they are irreducible to both smaller individual entities, and larger ongoing flows of interaction."

If we replace "object" with "emergent event" or some synonym, and "substance" with actuality, and leave "process," then I have never thought otherwise.  However, as I slowly go through the literature, most recently "vicarious causation," and talk to scholars, I just do not feel that they see "process metaphysics" as agreeing to that statement.  I know Leon does for sure, and I presume the Whiteheadians in general do as well.  I am confused.

What are we debating again?  Really?  Or am I just not sufficiently informed of what "process" means in this ongoing blogosphere conversation?  I have started to suspect this.  So, let me give my own response about why the statement is the case.

The emergent event comes to be through the transaction of other events, other transacting complexes of potentialities.  Hence, for one to be, many must be.  This invokes internal relations.  This may also be called a dynamic system in the sense that the organization of the complexities is also causally efficacious over and above the mere enumeration of potentialities.  Think of electromagnetic wave interference patterns.  All this organization, complex, and system-talk is the relational aspect.  However, once the event emerges, novel possibilities are created that are not reducible from the actual event.  The transaction of force/existence is fundamentally creative, because it is taken as basic that transaction changes a thing, and that things own self-similarity is not static (cf Peirce's tychism).  Perhaps this is an analogue of "hidden powers," although I do not go so far as to presume that or to speak of an "irreducible core."  Partly, this is because the event persists only through the relative stability of its local transactive environment.

There is a sense in which for the many to be, there must be one.  This is Peirce's synechism, or theory of continuity.  For things to ever affect each other, they must always already be related, and they are in a way "integral."  Hence, there is a sense in which relations are external, because mere relationality is not causally efficacious.  Again, organization is an issue, spatial as well as temporal, although I take time to be more fundamental than space.  What distinguishes the external vs. internal moment of these relations is the event of emergence, which is analogous to Whiteheadian concresence of an actual occasion.  (Whitehead's version is far more detailed than my current Peirce-Dewey one, although I'm aiming at phenomenology and have been developing other aspects.)

In all this, substance is not an over-riding concept.  The fundamental categories are the triad, especially as understood as possibility, force/activity/existence, and determinate existence/law/habit etc.  As I have explained it here, the emergence of the event emphasizes secondness and thirdness, active potentiality and its actualization, neither of which are well explained by the term "substance." 

Side note, although I've mentioned this on my blog.  This is a heavily modified Aristotelian potentiality.  Potentiality is always active unless actively inhibited by another.  And a potentiality does not have an exclusive, determinate realization unto actuality (entelechy).  Any pure potentiality (kinesis) has a realization (entelechy), but the transaction of potentialities, as well as their structure, their change, their rate of change, stability/chance, etc. combine to form a greater realization.  That is, entelechies are composed and composable all the way up or down to the limit of intelligiblity.  This relates to my discussion elsewhere of why there is something rather than nothing, as asking questions of cosmogenesis and evolution with this view gets dicey.  I mention this side note about potentiality to further explain the source of creativity.

I hope that I have been of service, and I will repost this on my blog.


  1. Speaking humorously for a moment, I'd like to simplify things and explain this is Crypto-Daoism!

    More seriously, there are numerous ideas in this post that correspond with Daoist cosmogony (not cosmology, as that denotes a universe brought to order via a logos or word).

    Contrary to earlier scholarship and interpretations, dao is not a transcendental mystical source of power. Dao is the dynamic interaction of forces and powers that give rise to emergent phenomenon and structures of nature. The two major forces are yin and yang, which are not essential substances, but are generalizations of generation and decay. Yin and Yang are never absolute, but are relative to each other within the context of any given process - thus, any process can be described in terms of growth and decay, and this can in turn be contrasted to other processes in terms of yin and yang.

    As for the Ten Thousand Things, this is a colloquial manner of referring to "everything." In other words, the Ten Thousand Things are emerge as the processes of nature, and undergo constant transformation in the process of nature. The idea that any object possesses "permanence" is a non-sequitor for Daoism, but that doesn't mean it can't be treated as an object for the sake of interaction. Just because something isn't permanent doesn't mean it can't be part of patterns of stability (or instability).

    Daoism also regards emptiness (wu 無) as the potential space in which processes mingle and give shape to events and objects. The reason a jar is useful is because of the empty space in the middle. The reason a wagon wheel can be spun in circles is because of the hollow hub. Note as well that if we're carrying the metaphor through in its entirety, that much of what defines an object is use within a context.

    Interestingly, this is exactly how Chinese language functions (in conventional usages). Ideograms represent an object (or process or idea), but in that representation there are often etymological suggestions about how the relationships form that particular idea. One of my favorites is the word for electricity, which is represented by a line of light forking out of the sun. Another one is the word for movies, which can be literally translated as "electric shadows." And so on and so forth.

  2. Carl,

    Thanks so much for joining the discussion. We're discussing what process metaphysical commitments are and how they relate to object-oriented ontology, specifically Levi Bryant, Ian Grant, Graham Harman, Meillasoux, and their forebears. I mention this because the discussion is concurrent across 4-5 blogs with roughly the same interlocutors.

  3. I'm reading some of the links John posted, which have been helpful. It's a pity the Daoists didn't really have a theory of experience. On the other hand, classical Chinese thought in general never held to the idea of internal mental images corresponding to external objects. On the other hand, correlation is a weaker claim than correspondence, so that poses at least one interesting question to my own work in Daoism.


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