Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Individuals in Process Philosophy

A correspondent, Gary Smith, asked about “individuals” in my processive view, which is still in development. I took the opportunity to explain why taking about “individuals” in an atomic sense is problematic in process philosophy.

Here's one reason why casually using the term "individual" is problematic in process philosophy. If the fundamental concrete unit is an actual event, then consider what an event is. An event is such by virtue of its relations to the past and future. The past is fully actual, the present is the moment of change, and the future is what might be. If we ignore or sever the past, then we get change without ground. If we do the same for the future, we get a present tending towards nothing in particular, which is absolute chaos. It must be limited at least by the laws of nature, no? How can we say that without claiming some limit on the ontic structure of possibility? We could resort to claiming special powers of the cause, or limits inherent to the causal impulse of efficient causation, but let me mention it and set it aside.  Typical substance philosophies appeal to efficient causation here, but it is not quite clear what the relation is between a cause and its effect, since in principle the cause may exist without its effect. It is latent. What actuates it? There are solutions, but process avoids this route by saying that any cause is always active and acting towards its effect, but realization of its effect depends upon local conditions. But this fundamentally denies substance-thinking if causality is not atomic. Talking about the future, or teleology, is talking about the relativity of present to future given the past.

If the fundamental concrete unit, the actual event, is what it is only in virtue of its relations to what it was and what is might be but is not, then calling it “individual” is problematic. It would be a different individual in the next pulse of the cosmos. Soon, I will post about why I reject the principle of non-contradiction, and it should be obvious why it is yet another problematic principle to speak about in process when trying to wander across different philosophical perspectives.


  1. There is much here I agree with. In time the individual changes and any self-identity that it might maintain through the tumultuous changes we call life is stretched so thin as to be non-existent. The center gives way. And any philosophy attempting to hold on to the single thing quickly finds itself in paradox. The principle of non-contradiction, it seems, must be abandoned. Which means philosophy collapses. And we are with Arthur Rimbaud on The Drunken Boat. And the smooth flow of vertigo.

  2. The question is how an individual is self-similar, not self-same, in temporal philosophy.

    Rejecting the standard principle of non-contradiction does not make philosophy collapse. Just see the thousands of years of work in many Eastern philosophies, many of which reject the principle.It only appears that way to someone who cannot think philosophy without a concept of substantial identity.

  3. Uh oh. I need to disambiguate something here. I realized this when I started writing the follow-on post.

    I argued that there is a sense in which an actual event is not an “individual.” It is an “individual” in the sense that an individual event exists, but more than the individual event is real because of the implications of temporality, and thus the term “individual” is problematic in process philosophy. One must make the "real" vs. "exists" distinction.