Thursday, January 31, 2013

Identity as Active Network

In has been awhile since I have offered new material; I come to you with a new introduction to process and temporal metaphysics.  I have talked with many people who admittedly do not understand process metaphysics. This is another attempt to explain the basic insight while proposing my own solution. Please note that I am not, in any way, invoking Whiteheadian thought. In many discussions, there is a tendency to reduce processive or temporal philosophy to Whitehead, which is not unmerited given his dominance, but is premature. For those who note the similarity of this musing upon past ones, I am practicing modes of explanation.

What something is, and what something does, are distinct. Traditionally, we have described what something is in terms of a timeless identity or essence. What it is, its identity, does not change. In contrast, what changes is its activity. What something does is its activity; it is how it changes itself and other things.

The problem with the traditional understanding, which remains the basis for many contemporary notions even if not traditional, is the privileging of identity over activity and the presumption that identity is timeless. Hence, while complete identity is supposed to be both what something is and what it does, complete identity is a monstrous chimera of the eternal and the temporal. That is, identity is eternal while activity is temporal, yet the activity of a thing is supposed to arise from its identity. Exactly how can the two combine? The traditional answer is to render activity as dependent on identity, or the temporal on the eternal,  and treat the activity as a potential waiting to be sprung by some external cause.

Hence, we say that action is dependent upon the actor. By “dependent,” we can mean a number of things. Most commonly, we accept Aristotle and claim that the actor must have the innate “potential” to perform a given action. Without the actor, there is no action, but the reverse is not true: there can be an actor without action. Since the identity of an actor does not change, and thus what actions is it capable of do not change, we render the temporal as dependent upon the eternal.

This solution proposes a number of problems, many of which are pushed aside. First, how does an activity begin? If an activity is temporal, then it must either begin or end at least once, else it is eternal. If we accept only efficient causes, which is now common, then the usual answer is to claim that it was an external or efficient cause. Yet that only defers the question; what causes that efficient cause? We could continue all the way back to cosmogenesis.

I propose another solution: temporalize everything. I will suggest how, which will focus how a potentiality becomes an actuality, the process of which I call an “activity.” Rather than treat the actuation of a potentiality as occurring through an external efficient cause, which views activity [kinesis] as a discrete event, assume that the activity is always active. (Please see prior posts on pragmatic naturalism and the triadic conception of dunamis.)  Hence, if an activity has no effect, it is not because the activity is only potential, but because the end of the activity [entelechy] is frustrated by some other activity. This shift is a revolution in how we understand the conceptual framework of metaphysics. Rather than the genesis of the temporal out of the eternal being the problem, it is now why the temporal is not the eternal. That is, why isn’t every potentiality always fully actualized?

Activity must be networked. This is perhaps the most important inference to draw; or to say in in more typical pragmatic terms, I propose a metaphysical semiotic. Assuming pragmatic naturalism (see prior posts), any realization of an activity must in principle involve other activities, events, and identities. The lines of resistance on continual activity form persistent events and assemblages that when determinate are individual “identities.”

We need to accept activity, energy, force, or change as its own category of reality rather than one derivative on identity or determinate existence. I propose that what we call “identity” is merely the concretion of past activities into what determinately exists. (See prior posts.” Likewise, real creativity is possible. Activities can, through constellations of interference, create new forms that would not have existed prior to that configuration. Hence, location in cosmic history matters.

I will stop here for now. Later, I will explain how this process is temporalized. So far, I have offered only a “historical” explanation that treats past, present, and future as successive parts of a history. Yet true temporality, the temporality of a present activity, has a dynamic relation to the past, present, and future. “History” only has a static one, and we should not mistake history for temporality.


  1. "Activity must be *networked*." Excellently put, Jason. I have to admit that I only scanned your post but do want to come back to it. I want do discuss many of these thoughts with respect to a thesis that I am developing regarding the impossibility of absolute metaphysical simples. Even the individual always is within a relation, temporality demands this. Yet this is different from saying individuals are *nothing more than* their relations, or that they are strictly constituted by them. The current disdain that I am seeing toward "relationalism" is misinformed perhaps. Or it is a mischaracterization.

    My one thought that I feel quite strongly about is: if temporality is real or change is true, relationality must also be the case. I am not sure there *can* be any item absolutely unrelated to anything else, if this means being unrelated to its future self, or if being eternal, related to the conditions which make it so. In any case, let me come back to your post and read slowly - this topic is one of those offshoots that I am actually planning to getting around to by the beginning of summer (the metaphysics of individuation). I plan on hitting Tarde, Simondon, and Ruyer.

  2. Yes, any traditional metaphysical simple becomes a problem for temporality. However, such simples as Peirce's "pure possibility" are not a problem as they are an ontological but not ontic category (per being about the structure of existence but not existing itself as such).

    Yes, individuals cannot be nothing more than their relations, aside from destroying a positive notion of identity, without denying genesis and creativity. If creation and destruction are possible, then acting upon something must in principle be able to bring about more than is already contained in an atemporal identity.

    The current disdain is both misinformed and mischaracterizing. Every time I've discussed the issue with someone who performs such a reduction, the person always ignores or dodges the issue of creation and real change, usually while not accepting that we live in a "block" or closed universe that the denial of true creativity may imply.

    I would make a formal distinction between "activity" and "relation." The difference is that an activity is creating some significant effect, whereas a relation is the real possibility of such (taking activity as dunamis consisting in potentia [capability], kinesis [continual act], and entelchy [inherent tendency of the singular act or telos]). A notable difference between "pure possibility" and "real possibility" is that between unbounded* logical space and probable realizations given current conditions.

    There cannot be something absolutely unrelated. And if there were, we could not enter into a knowing relation in order to claim that. We could speculate, but it would be less informative than asking about the hue of unicorn hair.

    As for my sources, I am synthesizing and extrapolating from pragmatist sources, though I'll be awhile before I publish much on it.