Whitehead’s philosophical work is not often viewed with an eye toward its contributions to ethical or political theory. David Hall’s work stands out as one of the better known exceptions to this rule, and Jude Jones’ study of Intensity in Whitehead’s thought has immediate applications in the area of ethics, though it is often viewed from a purely metaphysical angle. I thought it high time to bring a little Whitehead back into this nominally Whiteheadian blog, and current events have offered some examples of how this might be done. Obviously this won’t be anything even remotely approaching those mentioned works’ level of scholarship; indeed, I wish to say up front that anything I say here is simply a product of my own musing, and not to be attributed to anything Hall or Jones said (although, at this point, I can scarcely tell how much is my own thought, and how much I’ve just internalized from others’ work that it is now a part of my own fabric.) No small part of the problem is that, by the time you’ve explained Whitehead, you’ve no space or energy left to apply him to ethics. This is why this post will be some 200+ words longer than I otherwise aim for.
One thing that can be usefully set out right up front: Whitehead’s entire professional career, whether mathematical or philosophical, was dominated by two generic problems that can be usefully described as “the problem of space” and “the problem of the accretion of value.” This issues often overlapped for Whitehead. Thus, in his earliest major professional work, his Treatise on Universal Algebra (a mathematical work on logical forms of space), he devotes several paragraphs to the importance of good symbolism for efficient and unambiguous expression and use of concepts. This is a matter directly relevant to the accretion of value, because good symbolism is a value that accumulates with each gain in efficiency and clarity. In his works on education (widely acknowledged to by sympathetic with Dewey‘s) Whitehead uses ideas of mathematics pedagogy to advance claims about the nature and purpose of a liberal education, education being one of the primary means for the accretion of value. These examples by themselves are almost enough to (loosely) ground the case for a Whiteheadian ethics. But I want to add a few details and then (as mentioned) give a brief application. Details of my discussion can be found HERE.
Reality, Whitehead insists, is “atomic,” but this statement is one of the most misunderstood claims in all of English – if not all of Western – philosophy. Whitehead matured in a Victorian age in which “atom” still enjoyed the original Greek meaning of ἄτομος, undivided, and this is how Whitehead used the term throughout his principle metaphysical works. An “atom” in this sense is an undividable, uncuttable, whole, and any pretend “division” that does occur is entirely a matter of conceptual analysis, not real dissection and separation of parts. The error of trying to understand such ἄτομος wholes (this latter phrase being deliberately redundant) as microscopic corpuscles (the term Whitehead actually uses when discussing micro-physical particles) is easily seen as soon as one realizes that the logical structures in which his entire system of metaphysics is embedded is a non-metrical and, logically, pre-metrical mereotopology. The “mereo” means it is a theory of part and whole that makes no assumptions about the existence of “elements” (minimal units) the way set theory does. The “topology” part means it is combined with a theory of connectedness and neighborhood. It is logically impossible in such a context to speak of something as being either “large” or “small”, because such concepts depend on the presence of a robust metrical geometry in order to have any meaning.
“Actual entities” are Whitehead’s stand-out form of holistic (ἄτομος) structures, the logical “atoms” that provide the “quantum of explanation” within his metaphysical framework. The analysis of the “becoming” of an actual entity is a logical process, not a temporal one. This is because time and space (as well as metrical geometry) are “emergent” properties whose standing is to be found in the philosophy of nature, NOT in metaphysics: metaphysics explains time and nature, time and nature do not provide the foundation for metaphysics.
The analysis of an actual entity is where things get really interesting. It took my co-author and myself an almost 400 page book (some 176,000 words, and about 600+ endnotes) to give a reasonably coherent development of these ideas, so I hope I may be pardoned for skipping some details. The very short-form is this: an ἄτομος actual entity “takes in” the data from the world (the world “ingresses”) and ultimately composes its own subjective “experience”. Even an electron “experiences” the world, in the form of the electromagnetic field. (The word “experience” is a technical one, and must not be turned into some manner of conscious or cognitive activity.) Simultaneously, the actual entity presents itself to the world – one might say it “expresses” itself – and becomes its own universe of possibilities for other actual entities to take in (ingress) as they compose themselves (express), in a logically analyzable but ultimately holistic pattern. Value accretes as the intensity of these experiences contribute to the mutual growth and development of other actual entities.
Now, imagine this in terms of community building. Even as a fan (indeed, a significant scholar) of Whitehead’s thought, I still don’t see the details of his metaphysics providing any of us with a clear and immediate set of tools with which we can work toward justice. But I am a philosopher, and having an intellectual basis for a claim such as, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” which resonates as true, is something I nevertheless want that framework for. It is not enough to say that it is true, I want to say why it is true. (Whitehead’s reasons will differ from King’s, by the bye.) Tracing the warp and the woof of that garment is tricky business. What what a thing “is”, is basically how it internalizes the world in which it exists, while “simultaneously” (recall, this is logical, not temporal) how it externalizes itself to the new world that is the new environing reality for other becomings.
So, some examples.
By now, most people in the U.S. will be familiar with the “fall from grace” of conservative icon Milo Yiannopoulos. After a YouTube recording of Yiannopoulos advocating pedophilia between adult men and boys as young as 13 surfaced, he was disinvited from his prominent speaking position at CPAC, and lost a lucrative book deal. As a second example, consider the law recently advanced in the Arizona state senate that would criminalize participating in, or merely planning, peaceful protests, should any form of violence occur. In fact, the law would empower police to arrest protesters on no other grounds than that things may go bad. The legal issues of speech rights can be handled quickly. Yiannopoulos’ speech rights were not violated in any way, since no private person or organization is required to provide another with a podium and a bullhorn. Even public universities face no such requirement, except to their students and (depending on their contract) faculty. On the other hand, the Arizona action is an appalling and indefensible attack on 1st Amendment rights. Quite aside from the explicitly stipulated right of assembly, the law is as absurd as arresting a perfectly sober driver on no other account than that someone under the influence might be on the road somewhere.
The first Whiteheadian question in these two examples is: what is the accretion of value, &/or how is that accretion blocked? The second question then is, how is the intensity (in the densely metaphysical sense that Whitehead uses that term) of experience enhanced or degraded, so as bring to fruition that accretion? Yiannopoulos’ pedophilia might enhance his personal intensity of experience (the argument why this might be false won’t be pursued here), but it is a radical degradation of that experience in the child victims. What they can take in from the world (ingress) and how they can then translate themselves out to the world (express) has been severely damaged; the fullness of their possibilities has been cut off from them. Even among the ancient Athenian Greeks, where liaisons between grown men and youths (of military age) were accepted, still that acceptance did not go to boys. (Aeschines quite contemptuously denounces those who cross that line.)
The Arizona measure is an obvious assault on the possibilities of protesters to realize both ingress and express the fullness of their potential worlds; that simply is what it means to trample on another’s rights. But the persons who would impose such a monstrous law are assaulting their own potentialities! They are attacking themselves by attacking others; they are denying their own potentialities for becoming by annihilating their own most sources of ingressing data and expressing their own unrealized possibilities. They would make themselves static “things,” rather than vital becomings. The accretion of value is drowned in the tub when the intensity of experience is allowed no possibility of growth or becoming.
Developing these ideas to even an initial stage would require a large book, not merely a blog post. But I place this here to crack the door on the idea that the application of Whitehead’s thought goes beyond that of science and metaphysics.
(Feb 28, 2017: The Arizona House of Representatives has just announced that it refuses to take any action on the anti-protest bill from the Senate, so the bill is effectively dead.)