First off, let me remind folks that, in Western philosophy at least, relations have been treated as purely parasitic ways of talking about “things.” Which is to say, when we talk about relations, we’re really using a “short hand” to talk about “things” which alone are “really real.” Funny “thing”, though, is that if we were to try and eliminate relation-talk for exclusively thing-talk, all we’d really do is eliminate the possibility of talking altogether. Even sentences like, “The ball is red,” are thrown out, because “red” is a relation among things that relate to one another color wise. And even if we talk about “red” (or “redness”) as a kind of “thing” in its own right, the only way other things can themselves “be red” is if they relate to “red” (or “redness”) in some specifiable way. So, why not just be honest and treat relations as real explicitly, since we’re forced to treat them as real regardless of what we say?iii
Within the context of relational realism, Whitehead spoke at length about the internalization of relatedness and the externalization of relatedness. My wording here is in direct conflict with the tradition which speaks only of “internal” and “external” relations; as though these were self-sufficient “things” in their own right that could be reasonably discussed in any other context than how they in fact manifest themselves in process. These aren’t relationships we “have,” they are the forms in which we become. We take in the universe, further and further, until our (or any entity’s) “identity” only at last resolves itself as fully related to the world beyond. But that is only half the story. We (or any entity) concretize and express out entitihood to the world as a “self” that is just and only our own. The first, the internalization of relatedness, leads to what Whitehead called the “subject.” The second, the externalization of relatedness, presents us with what Whitehead called the “superject.”
These realizations and expressions, these concretions, are not the sorts of “things” that lend themselves to the subject/predicate mode of speaking. Whitehead characterized these latter as “high abstractions,” and not the sorts of relational realities of which our experience is primarily comprised. In this regard, Whitehead called the primary forms of relatedness “feelings.” One can see in this choice of terms an attempt on Whitehead’s part to move away from the “pan-cognitivism” that as undermined so much of Western philosophy. Relational connections, in their processes of internalization and externalization, are primary modes of experience – whether that “experience” is the experience of an electron or a human being. They are felt, long before they are “known.”
Which brings us back to the uncanny. We struggle to talk about it, put it into a convenient sentential form, precisely because it is an immediate feeling rather than an abstractly formulated “subject” somehow incorporating a “predicate.” Which is to say, it is an immediate fact of how we relate to the universe around us, relate in how we internally become our “self,” and relate in how we externally express our “self.” All of which is, quite frankly, uncanny. I mean, the very notion of a personal “self” stretches the boundaries of the weird, yet we pretend as though it is just the most ordinary and obvious thing (“thing”) in the world. We stop questioning where our “self” comes from, and treat it as though it were an absolute given. Yet it is the least “given” thing in the world, and all the ways in which it is taken – the pull and push of internalization and externalization – are given no account.
Thus, we translate “ghosts” into images of our own “selves,” yet we have no philosophically justifiable image of that “self.” No wonder our world is haunted. We cannot begin to say who “we” are, much less account for the shadows at the periphery of our vision.
Which, in turn, brings me to the title of this post.
Massive institutional infrastructures (the plural is deliberate) are invested in telling us who we are, what we are, how we should act, and so on. The most important term in the foregoing is the “telling,” a linguistic subject/predicate form of command. Insofar as such telling permits any growth at all – either internally or externally – that growth is constrained by the requirement to fit forms which have themselves been imposed without any organic connection to the world in which they have emerged.
Imperatives – commands – come into the world linguistically, first imposing themselves upon the mind, and then upon the body, as those who surrender them-selves to those external impositions abandon those selves to be anything other than someone else’s instrument. Relations that internalize and externalize themselves are not like that. They do not impose because the self is yet to be composed. And they are not comprised of linguistic expressions; they are only inadequately approximated by such “high abstractions.” The closest they come to command is the demand of the final externalization of relatedness, when the superject declares to the world, “this is me.” But these are not sentences, nor are they propositionsiv; these are pure relational realities.
Relations – pure, real relations – can enchant precisely because they envelope and compose. They are “things” we are “told,” because they are constitutive of the self that can only be “told” “things” after it is constituted. Re-enchantment, then, is returning to those pure relational “roots” and feeling (in that Whiteheadian, relational sense) in defiance of the commands that have been told to us. Feeling the world, rather than having it dictated to us by others, is a way of coming to our-selves, and becomes then a form of liberation. It is often terrifying – the uncanny is not always or even often friendly. But when it becomes ours, we at last position ourselves to resist the uniformitization of institutions and people who would deny those selves to us.
Meanwhile, I’m hoping the maples in the backyard will cheer up once they finish leafing out in May. It has been a long winter of them glowering at me from the shadows.
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i Bas C. Van Fraassen: “Extension, Intension, and Comprehension,” in Logic and Ontology, Milton Karl Munitz (ed.) New York: New York University Press (1973). Again, I own the book, and have read it with some attention, but I can’t get to it for the exact quote and page number. That said, I believe my memory on this quote is pretty damned good.
ii And, just by the bye, I already know that witches are real, because I’ve definitely met a few. The Disney cartoon of an ancient crone with hairy warts on her crooked nose cackling over a cast iron cauldron with bubbling goo inside is just that – a cartoon. But there are various neo-pagan practitioners of the arcane religions of Nature who will say “hello” to you on the street. You can read about them HERE, for example. The American folk singer Dar Williams made a Christmas song about them: The Christians and The Pagans. Do they cast spells and curses, or summon demons? Sure, some of them do. But we remain with Hotspur’s question to Glendower, “will they come, when you do call for them?”
iii The book by Randy Auxier and I (from which this blog gets its name), The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism (New York: Routledge Studies in American Philosophy, March 2017) explores these topics in significantly greater detail.
iv I should add here that Whitehead does have a “theory of propositions,” but it looks nothing like what you’ll find in any orthodox linguistic philosophy, of either the analytical or continental varieties. It is the kind of thing that needs an entire book in its own right to even begin to unpack. As such, I’ll say no more about it here.