Monday, June 11, 2012

Thinking Temporality and Process

Someone asked a question about my prior post "What Is Not a Process," wherein I make some comments about process and temporality. My response, which is really a musing upon the question since I was not given enough information to understand the question, is below. It includes noting different conceptions of temporality and why processive phenomenological temporality is so difficult ... and why I need to read more. 

Perhaps I am saying that our conceptions are too rigid, but it also depends on what concepts you have in mind. Commonsense conceptions tend to "spatialize" time, which is to think of them in terms of duration and discrete units. Instead, I poeticize time as change and relativity, since I am trying to think both processional and phenomenological time. Let me explain, especially since I did not add that portion of my book, and I would like to think this more clearly.

This might not answer your question, in which case you might need to repeat and clarify, especially since I do not know your background and I am presuming a lot. As for a “statement of belief on your part,” I do not know what you mean. I am working on a temporal logic for my work that is years away from completion, and these are skeleton arguments.  I am an academic and philosopher, and this is what we do. My practical application is to explain how it is that if we cannot imagine something, then we cannot experience it as meaningful. To begin….

Conceiving temporality as a commonsense notion, it is past, present, and future; it is a succession or series. This is a static conception because it treats the relation of each moment of the triad as fixed, e.g., past-to-present is always the same, and it is like thought to be little difference from present-to-future. This presumes symmetry.

If we take another step, we may conceive time as ontological. The past is fully actual or being, the present is indeterminate and becoming, and the future is the possible or telic. We need to combine this ontological conception with the preceding logical conception to think temporal process.

Taking another step, conceiving time as temporal process is the think the whole of past-present-future and not treat past-to-present as a part separate from present-to-future. Moreover, we might recognize a linear asymmetry between past-to-present and present-to-future. That is, the relation is no longer succession, but a constitutive relation: the present contains the past as a ground for the inchoate now. While the past is fully actual, the now is a field of activity generative of future possibilities that are in no way actual. However, the pattern of activity in the now opens or closes future possibilities, and this relation of present-to-future is not the same as past-to-present. The complete event is the whole of past, present, and future as well as how they relate. We now include the relations as part of the event, whereas succession was taken for granted in the commonsense notion.

Let us take a final step to conceive phenomenological processive temporality. The invocation of phenomenology adds two among many changes. First, the perspective shifts to present-past-future, since the phenomenon is always present (though it need not be given as present), yet the biological process that generates a phenomenon remains past-present-future. This greatly affects the second point. Second, rather than a unilateral asymmetric temporal relation, the relations are bilateral asymmetric. These are the examples I originally posted. Hence, we have present to past (becoming in light of the actual), present-to-future (what might be in light of what is), or future-to-present (what may be in light of the possible). This last is the nature of the hypothetical, which Peirce and especially Dewey took to be the very nature of thought.

This last one is extremely difficult to think, and I suggest reading my recent article in the Transactions of the C.S. Peirce society as a start. The problem, if I may put it simply, is that we have simultaneous biological and first-person conscious processes operating that are influencing each other, the biological is prior in the asymmetry, and consciousness does not represent the biological process. Ha, simply. I guess I failed at simple. Let me try again not-simply.

From a metaphysical standpoint, we think in a past-present-future orientation. From a phenomenological one, we think present-past-future. The past is the source of meaning, the present is the site of interpretation, and the future is the projection of a present interpretation as meaningful. That is, we experience the present as meaningful only insomuch as it is familiar and composed of past associations. Yet doing so is a present interpretation of the past that we experience as meaningful only by projecting what the past might mean now, i.e., the anticipated future. Yep, still not-simple.

I am working through Americanist concepts (Peirce, James, Dewey, Royce, and Hartshorne) supplemented with Husserl and Heidegger, and I made the post because the proposal is incomplete. Even those name have far more to contribute to my working-through the problem. I am still trying to grasp temporal ecstasis in Heidegger—too many things engaging my time.


  1. Have you somewhere written anything in response to McTaggart's famous A-series and B-series in his The Unreality of Time?
    That seems to be the starting point for so many in the analytic tradition. I am especially thinking The Ontology of Time by Oaklander.

  2. No, I have not, though I did peruse a summary of his argument again as I was writing this. I do not think that I am ready to take on that scholarship just yet, but it does seem that I am directly against his views. Yet I will withhold final judgment until I have the time to give him a full reading. When I first read his work, I thought, "are you kidding me?" But so many have fallen in behind it that I feel I should read more secondary literature to see why this is so. I hope to write a publishable piece on it in a year or two, and it is best to get started early as I do here.

    In what I propose, time is best described as a "relativity of relation," which is non-trivial in a metaphysics affirming the reality of relations.

  3. p.s. I think I should give a hint of how I might radically differ from McTaggart. I affirm the reality of relations and purposiveness in nature. Hence, if the present of the moment of interpretation, the relating of relations, and the future is telic horizon of what may be ... then I clearly have more elements to work with than McTaggart. If my arguments sound novel, they are not that novel to Americanists, and my purpose is to think through and understand them rather than be novel.

  4. I heard a frankly amazing talk by Johanna Seibt last week on process ontology in the context of Sellarsian philosophy. It is by far the best thing on the subject I've heard in ages, echoing Peirce, and strikes me as seriously viable.

  5. Can you link me a text?

    The question is not whether process is viable. The question is what are the implications. But perhaps that not quite what you meant. Regardless, I see process vs. substance as a fundamental choice between understanding reality in terms of being or becoming. As fundamental, it really is a choice, and making a rational decisions comes down to the consequences of taking one hypothesis over another and to what one applies it. I am thinking of metaphysics as abductive, by the way, and not some synthetic a priori system that would allow for induction or deduction of metaphysical positions.

    Now, I would love to hear what in Seibt's talk struck you as seriously viable?

  6. I'm afraid I don't understand the difference between being and becoming, unless it is a rephrasing of an atomicity of processes vs an atomicity of materials.

    My problem with process ontology in general is that it has not proven particularly enlightening so far as a model, despite hopes that it would address some seemingly intractable holes in materialism like emergence.

    Briefly, a few aspects of Seibt's work that made it seem more viable to me as an explanatory framework:

    1. Its integration with a full-on nominalism.
    2. Careful decoupling of processes from linguistic-semantic terms.
    3. [Likewise] model-theoretical approach to specification of properties.
    4. A naturalistic hierarchy of regulatory processes, from items up to sensings to linguistic entities.
    5. Functionalist individuation of processes.

    1. Oops, here's a paper:

  7. David,

    Simply, being is what is, while “becoming” is change. Classically, something cannot both be and be something else at the same time, as it violates a fundamental law of logic.

    I also see no justification for the claim that it is not enlightening as a model. Moreover, I reject nominalism, and I do not see what motivates or is gained by a “decoupling of processes from linguistic-semantic terms?” I’m not entirely sure what that means. Again, I do see what a “model-theoretical approach” gains us, and I am only guessing at how you are using the time. Continuing, a “naturalistic hierarchy of regulatory processes” is not special to Sebit, depending on what you mean by “naturalistic.” Finally, a “functionalist individuation of processes” is also not unique to Seibt. All of this makes me wonder what you are reading, and what you think I am doing. From my perspective, my post on temporality was a very odd duck, but I am trying to work through some issues.

    Would you please clarify? I'll take a quick look at the paper.

    1. I think that classically there have been quite a variety of views on the subject, from Plato to Pyrrho to Nagarjuna to Sextus Empiricus to Leibniz. Words like ousia in Greek and svabhava in Sanskrit have quite different connotations than "being," and I'm not at all confident that a solid view has ever emerged on the subject. And by decoupling from linguistic-semantic terms, I mean an attempt to take seriously precisely this kind of immense distortion that language poses to articulating the nature of the world.

      I never said that these features were unique to Seibt, but that their (difficult) combination puts together a gestalt that is more convincing to me than other versions of process philosophy.

      I'm sorry that the paper didn't live up to my billing, but I thought you might be interested.

    2. David,

      Yes, classically there have been many views, but only the Indian and Chinese concepts come close to contemporary process, and that is not quite on point. If you write that a solid view has never emerged, then I wonder why you think that Americanist, which includes Whitehead, or Buddhist views are insufficient. I do not think that they are, though that is not the same as saying that they are incomplete. Also, I would note that your list conflates "process" with "philosopher of becoming," in which case the ancient Greek, Spinoza, Leibniz, etc. should be taken off the list. Generally, I'm refering to temporalist philosophy, as are most who use the term in process circles.

      As for language being an immense distortion, I do not hold that to be true, or at least not a helpful perspective without much qualification. I don't find Seibt's logical articulation to be very helpful, at least not without reference to more process scholarship.

      I suspect that our differences are due to coming from different backgrounds in which what counts as a good explanation, what should be assumed, etc. are quite different. Process in the American tradition, since it is in dialogue with 18-19th century continental European, goes far back as a continual line of study. I mention this so you know where I'm coming from.

    3. That wasn't meant to be a list of process philosophers; it was a list of philosophers with different conceptions of being, which would entail a different concept of becoming, process philosopher or no. By a solid view I mean a solid view of being; even within the western tradition, there didn't seem to be a uniform account of being prior to Heidegger and there certainly hasn't been one since. The current default "scientific" conception of being is an incoherent mishmash that cuts corners so as to fit the theoretical models that happen to have evolved. I think it is difficult for an ontology to oppose itself to a dominant current account because I don't think there IS one.

    4. David,

      When I am thinking of Americanist discourse, I am thinking of Royce, Hartshorne, Whitehead, or contemporaries such as Neville or Corrington. “Americanist” is bigger than “pragmatist.” You would be right that James, Dewey, and Mead are not primarily ontologists, though they are still process thinkers. The latter are doing more than using it as a metaphor, and you are right to admit that you are framing “process” in a particular way, which is fair. Reading Heidegger as an epistemologist is just this side of indefensible.

      When I write of “analytic,” I am as much making a sociological statement as anything else. Who is this person talking to, what has he or she read, what are the citations to, how are the problems framed, etc. It’s a traditional marker, though some call it a “style” marker, and I insist that they are mistaken if they think it is only that. Whitehead as analytic? If nothing else, it wouldn’t past the explanation I just gave.

      As for there not being a uniform account of being, are you ignoring scholastic philosophy? Or are you setting idiosyncratic standards? You are right that there is not per se a dominant account, but there are strong tidal tendencies among different traditions and sub-fields.

      Finally, I do appreciate your explanations, which are far more informative. I am scheduled to give the address to the APA session of the Society for the Study of Process Philosophies, since they want to hear from non-Whiteheadian process thought, which in this case would be Peirce-inspired pragmatism in the form of Dewey studies. His is notable because its dialectical.

    5. p.s. See the links in my "philosophy primer" section wherein I give links to two speculative realism primers. Speculative realism is becoming a cross-traditional movement originally centered in continental thought. I should add a link to the center for process studies....

    6. You are stipulating a definition of "analytic" that is different from that in common parlance by both self-proclaimed analytics and continentals. I don't have a problem with that per se, but it does back my point that language is far from a transparent window on reality.

      Likewise, there are enough traditions and sub-fields to eliminate any common account of "being" that isn't tautological (e.g., "being is what is", or Quine's "What is there? Everything."). Within scholasticism, I see enough differences between Duns Scotus, Ockham, and Aquinas (and Avicenna, and al-Ghazali, and Averroes...) that I can't see a unified account there either, and whatever unity there is is shredded to bits by the Renaissance. It's nearly as problematic a word as "God."

    7. David,

      I would contest that my definition of analytic is different from common parlance in American and continental thought, though it might be different from mainstream analytic thought. That has been contested much in the blogosphere, especially at New Apps.

      As for language, we could continue conversation to become clearer on things. You imply that language is universal, or is a simple tool, etc.... I don't think you're making a large point, though you could eventually make one. As long as I can explain exactly what I mean, and that's not universal among academic philosophers, prima facie this is not a barrier.

      I was not responding to disunity or unity, but to whether they had a view. If the bar is "everyone agrees," then your point is trivially true.

  8. Ah, it's analytic, and that's why I'm less familiar with your language. I'll keep taking a look at the article...

  9. David,

    The paper is written from a contemporary analytic perspective, which is fascinating to me given what it presumes and not. Emergence was fixated on mental phenomena? For analytic, maybe, but for those inspired by 19th century continental it’s about temporality and freedom vs. necessity, etc. Thank you for sharing this, as I am very interested in cross-traditional work.

    I like a lot of what is said at the beginning, though the language and motivations are novel. For instance, the definition of “theory” (483) is rather limiting since it defines theory in terms of science. I advocate abduction, which is the mainstay of the logic of science, but that’s not the same as “science”—whatever that is. We should not take that as obvious. Seeing the passage on models, I offered a “train” in my book, which is useful for the analogies and dis-anologies, although I would prefer offering “root metaphors” rather than “models.”

    Yes, I think I will continue commenting as I go through this…

    Ha! G.H. Mead is an old-style emergentist?!?!? He gets mentioned and not others? I’m amused.

    The claim that no post-Cartesian ontology has questioned “the assumption that all concrete individuals are particular entities” is absolutely untrue and makes me question the author’s research beyond analytic. It depends on the details, but given the subsequent clarifications, it will be hard to pin that on any process ontology that I know of.

    From here, David, I will not continue commenting it as it appears either unfamiliar with recent process philosophy outside of analytic. The assumptions and explanation are mostly translations of historic process conceptions into analytic or logical language. I do like its clarity, however, and hope that it helps introduce processive concepts into analytic. I have an article out for review now that gives the Deweyan variant of “partitions levels” both absolute and contingent.

    Hmm, the spatiotemporal location section looks interesting, though also familiar.

    1. You seem rather uncharitable. The absence of Deleuze didn't hurt my appreciation of it, and I have to say that I thought her integration of mereology and process ontology offered a lot more than, for example, Deleuze's account of same. Perhaps her paper consists of nothing more than mere translations of old ideas, but I can't say I read it that way. (I've always found articulating such mere translations to be devilishly difficult myself.)

      One could likewise say that your articulation of temporal phenomenology falls into elementary fallacies explicated by Husserl, but what is the point beyond uncharitability? Better to see what new ideas may be lurking in an unfamiliar or even deficient vocabulary, because what vocabulary is not deficient?

    2. David,

      Uncharitable? I do not think so. The article made a bold universal statement about all process metaphysics and barely includes much of the relevant scholarship, so I thought I was being overly charitable by continuing to read it. I then explained that it lacks scope, and many of the specific claims I've seen before and have published myself. It's advance is a formal treatment appealing to analytic analysis, but that's of value only if the reader accepts that form of analysis.

      Deleuze? It wouldn't occur to me to want Deleuze mentioned, but it is a relevant addition. I have read only a bit of Deleuze; you seem to be conflating "process" with "Deleuze," but generally only the continentals do that. Actually, I am wondering if anyone realizes that process philosophy has had over a century of scholarship by people other than Whiteheadians and Deleuzians.

      As for my thinking-out-loud, and let's pretend that it wasn't just an experiment, you would have to argue how it falls into those fallacies. Given that, once again, I've written and published on how I reject much of Husserl, aside from not using a Husserlian methodology, that is not immediately relevant.

      As for new ideas, I read the article, even started a serious commentary, and you're berating my response? How often does a total stranger actually read what you suggest, stop, and offer commentary? You seem to have an odd notion of charity if reading, a basic commentary, and discourse count as dismissing it. I do have experience in all three major traditions, so my comment about the vocabulary is not a judgment of taste, but an actual disagreement about the philosophic content. Read my words again; I reject the scientific naturalism that the definition of "theory" is predicated upon.

      Wait, David, are you aware that American scholarship on process goes back well over a century and includes generations of scholarship? And this author cites ... one book of it? I don't see continental scholarship either. Analytic is very late to the game, so it would be prudent to expect more.

    3. Yes, I studied process philosophy in Diderot and its relation to aspects of Leibniz, Wolff, Bayle, and Condillac. In all of them, emergence is centrally concerned with the mental and the living, a hallmark of vitalist and hylozoist discourse. I looked into its connections with Peirce's Monist series and some of Cassirer and Apel's work. Peirce's account interests me far more than those of the other Americans (I'm mostly familiar with James, Dewey, and Mead), which for me frequently seem to be using process as a metaphor rather than as an ontology. I'm more sympathetic to Lewis's metaphysics, but if he engaged with process philosophy I haven't read it. Of course I read Heidegger as an epistemologist, so my bar for ontology is extremely high. But for process, Peirce and to a lesser extent Diderot are my models in this regard.

      ps--Whitehead is at least as "analytic" as Seibt by any definition I know of.

  10. Without replying to the comments other than this – hear, hear! on rejecting nominalism. Language should not be held to arbitrary rules but allowed to roam free getting itself into whatever problems it can.

    I really appreciate your comment on how we're talking about the application of temporality instead of its being. That helps me to understand what you're saying about phenomenological temporality much better.

    In your prior post you state that when people encounter telos for the first time they have a view of it as some kind of magical thinking. You go on to state that it can instead be viewed as “the dynamic disposition of non-determinate change”. I think it can be much more than that; a physical quantum process drawing us in many different directions based which we feel within our unconscious unbeknownst to us.

    I'm going to throw out something partially unrelated in that its application is not totally apparent to me yet. I'm about to read a work by Fichte called "An Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation" and I've been reading some various works by Derrida. Firstly, revelation seems to be the future affecting the present. Not necessarily a determined outcome affecting the present but a possibility manifested of the future giving itself to the present. Through this the past can act on that knowledge affecting the future that was revealed, thereby helping the future to create its present in an unforeseen manner.

    Derrida writes various pieces such as ‘Telepathy’ and ‘Envois’ in the “Post Card” which are grammatically disjointed and seemingly written out of stream of conscious. They seem to be letters to an individual in the future however. (He makes various references to fortune-telling books, sending letters to the unforeseen, doing his work simply as a cover for his open letters to the future, and how anyone he would consider a predecessor to his work would take on the concept of Telepathy.) He has numerous articles written like this, all relating to communications, and many of his others refer to the “Post Card”. He seems to believe this was a relationship between Plato and Socrates as well.

    Anyways, I’ve seen glimpses of the future affecting the past, people affecting each other over distance, and the like. I think quantum physics is beginning to show us that minute particles can do this. Particles can affect the outcome of a previous experiment with entangled particles. Particles can be made to travel faster than the speed of light which theoretically should mean you could send information into the past, or something along those lines.

    It is on this level of the unconscious that I believe teleology affects us, through modes of ‘communication’ that happen around us unbeknownst to us. By being open to these processes by understanding we are not necessarily completely understanding ourselves, on a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment, we can limit our hypocrisy and at the same time become open to the Other. Imagination and creativity can become more prominent in our lives. We can start fixing the problems we are creating for ourselves.

    I love this blog. You have some very cool subjects you address.

  11. Climate,

    Much of C.S. Peirce’s life work is aimed at rejecting nominalism. I give an incomplete bibliography in my “Introductory Readings in Classical Pragmatism” section. Fully rejecting nominalism requires some logical moves that many find … unusual at the least.

    As for phenomenological temporality, it’s about the experience of time, which prima facie need have no relation to the metaphysical conceptions of time (the “regular” notion of time is somewhere in this category). The problem in my work is that since I am adopting process methods that invoke a theory of continuity, then I must say that the experience of time is connected to metaphysical time. This is something that would make most continental phenomenologists go stark white in horror. It will take years, at minimum, to have a workable account, especially since I am still working through prior literature. It’s a recent project.

    As for “telos,” the term is really a temporal term. It describes the purposiveness of nature, although thinking of purposes in nature is still unpopular.

    Sadly, I don’t know Derrida well enough to comment. I can say that the future affects the past in phenomenological termporality; what we imagine affects how we understand where we’ve been. However, this is a phenomenological and not metaphysical notion of “future;” it’s about the experience of change, relatedness, and possibilities, which need not be the true of what we are thinking about.

    Concerning the level of the unconscious, yes. I’ve written much about that. My ultimate solution is to talk about our character, or habitual body, that governs a lot of our non-conscious interactions, from which consciousness arises. Conscious awareness is built upon so much of which we are not aware.

    Finally, thanks. I do try to be detailed and interesting. I will warn you that I am often in the mode of “thinking out loud,” and do not always write for a general audience in mind. That said, I am always willing to offer some clarification.

  12. Climate,

    p.s. The "magical thinking" occurs when someone treats a telos as if an actual future that forces the present to conform to it. Instead, a telos indicates the realization of a local potentiality (power). I have posted on this before if you want to look it up. I am using Aristotelian langauge for non-Aristotelian means.


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