A little while ago I rather casually glossed the idea of internal and external forms of relatedness – worse yet, I did so in the concept of discussing Whitehead’s philosophy. This seems like a good time to flesh those ideas out a bit more, as they are interesting in their own right, and will also serve to illuminate another respect in which Whitehead’s process metaphysics differs from so much of the Western canon.
I have been arguing in two previous posts (with a minor political interruption along the way) that what a “thing” “is”, is a matter of how that “thing” relates to the world, and that those relations have a reality in their own right over and above being a merely parasitic way of talking about things and other things. This is a bold claim. Along the way, I’ll be using the terms “relations” and “forms of relatedness” pretty much synonymously. This is nothing to get excited about, simply an effort on my part to mix up my language a bit so that it does not become tedious from repetition.
One way of looking at internal vs. external forms of relatedness is from that very special relation, identity. It is easy to forget that identity is a relation, and think of it instead as a deep seated property of a thing’s “is-ness.” Philosophers have to resort to such terms as this latter (other terms that might come up include “essence,” “being”) in their struggles to talk about something that seems so basic, so primitive, and so absolute, that any attempt to discuss any-“thing” at all, must already presuppose that which we would otherwise wish to analyze. However, identity is not another “thing”, but rather a relation that “things” have to themselves. Hence, a formula like “A = A” might appear trivial, but it is relational, not substantial.
This is where theories of external relations begin. The theory of external relatedness treats the relation of identity as the first, most absolutely primitive relation. The “relation of is-ness” that a “thing” bears to it-“self” stands prior to all other possible forms of relatedness – forms of relatedness that are outside of, and external to, the relation of self-identity which is the “thing’s” most singularly defining characteristic. The “thing” is still related to the world, but those relations – beyond its own self-identity, its “is-ness” – are completely external to what makes the “thing” the thing it “is.” So to emphasize the previous, for external forms of relatedness, self-identity is the first relation, given analytically at the outset. This has been the view most favored in Western philosophy.
However, A few philosophers – Spinoza being the most stand out example, along with a number of 19th C. Idealists – held that internal relations were primary. If for external relations, self-identity is the first relation, given analytically at the outset, for internal relations self-identity is the “last” relation, derived synthetically at “the end,” after all other forms of relatedness have come into play and “had their say.” For an “internalist” (my term) what a “thing” “is” is exactly how it is related to everything else in the universe. There is no relation of “self-identity” per se, only the “accumulation point” of all the other relations in the world collected into a more or less tightly centered bundle. This bundle is then the “thing,” and its identity is the “center” where all these other relations have intersected. Thus self-identity is an “emergent” character of all the other forms of relatedness in the world, and it is the “last” to emerge, as the final sum of all those other relations, forming the “thing” in question.
Both solutions pose problems. With the “internalist” approach, the only thing that really exists is the whole, the totality of all relations; individuals then become a merely parasitic byproduct and illusory artifact of what is genuinely real. With the “externalist” approach, the connectedness of reality becomes problematic, as all one has is a pile of disconnected individuals existing in only accidental and parasitic relations with one another. Knowledge becomes deeply problematic with both. The internalist ends up requiring us to know everything before we can know anything (since the only “thing” to be known is the whole, and individuals are merely an illusion.) The externalist gives us no leverage to know how things are connected, since according to that theorist “things” really aren’t connected at all.
Whitehead’s solution is to embrace both internal and external forms of relatedness, but in a “processual” (that is, process oriented) rather than substantial form. The key here is Whitehead’s aphorism, “The many become one, and increase by one.” The “many” is the world as externally related; the “one” is the world as internally related; while “increase by one” is the process emphasis upon becoming. Explaining this in detail would require a very hefty work of scholarship. But I will do my best to gloss the ideas in the remaining space.
Whitehead had two main problems that defined his intellectual life, the “problem of space” and the “problem of the accretion of value.” Tackling these problems came, in his later work, under the theories of “prehension” and “extension.” (See HERE.) Whitehead’s mature theory of extension was the culmination of 50 years of mathematical work devoted to the task of developing a “pre-geometrical” concept of spatial relations. Using the logical primitives of part and whole, and of “neighborhood” and “connectedness,” that work became the foundation of what is now known as “mereotopology.” Coupled with Whitehead’s theory of “strain loci”, this theory of extension is the completion of his philosophy of nature, that was first expressed in the triptych of his works from 1919 – 1922.
Whitehead’s theory of prehension is actually the more difficult of the two, but because it does not look like formal logic, scholars have been more willing to attend to it. While Whitehead’s theory of extension (part IV of Process and Reality) might read like a logic text, his theory of prehension (part III of Process and Reality) reads more like Finnegan’s Wake – “riverun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay” (which was actually inspired by a drinking song) – it is non-linear, with multiple feedback loops, and must be read narratively rather than analytically. The story of prehension (and it is a story) is about how a “thing” (what Whitehead calls an “actual occasion”) takes in its relatedness to the rest of the world and, in the process, finds and makes its-“self.”
A too casual glance at these theories might lead one to believe that the theory of extension is all about external relations (individual parts relating to a whole which is their mere composition), while an equally dismissive gloss of prehension might lead one to believe it is about internal relations (an emergent “thing” coming to be from its relations to the rest of the world.) Nothing could be more profoundly mistaken.
The theory of extension seems to be about parts, which on the surface would appear to emphasize external forms of connectedness. But a part is only a “part” insofar as it is a part-of-a-whole; similarly, a whole is only a “whole” insofar as it is just and only this connection of parts. The relations of parts-and-wholes cannot be reduced, it is something of an all-or-nothing affair. This means that it is the model of internal relatedness: the many (parts) become one …
The theory of prehension seems to be about relations internally defining a “thing,” but in fact it is about that thing (that “actual occasion”) taking in those relations and projecting itself into and onto the world as just the thing that it is. The many become one … and increase by one.
The final step (of this admittedly too brief gloss) is to understand these forms of relatedness processually, rather than substantially. The theory of extension is not about internal relations, it is about the internalization of relatedness. The theory of prehension is not about external relations, it is about the externalization of relatedness.
The many become one, and increase by one.