“A.N. Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Imaginary Dialogue with A.N. Whitehead During COVID 19 times” by Raj Ayyar
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Series’s Editor’s Note:
Metaphysics is broadly understood as an inquiry into the nature of Being; majority of the western philosophers associate Being with the timeless, immutable substance which is free from the becoming. As such, they bifurcate reality into Being/Becoming, Idea/Matter, mind/body etc (which according to Nietzsche is the source of the slave morality and weakness). Whitehead goes beyond these dualities in his metaphysics which is called as the process philosophy. He rather presents the view that the consciousness pervades all the entities, which he calls as ‘prehension’.
Through his imaginative flight to the past, Raj Ayyar presents the various dimensions and nuances of Whitehead’s metaphysics in a simple and riveting conversation. He also connects Whitehead metaphysics with the themes of panpsychism, Leibnitz’s ‘’pre-established harmony’, Buddhist noble truths and Chinese Daoism, which makes the write-up extremely interesting and thought-provoking.
In continuity with the ongoing series on imaginary dialogues with the philosophers, poets and the thinkers wherein we invite our peers outside of NIAS, today I present the conversation written by Raj Ayyar with A.N Whitehead.
– Dr. Saurabh Todariya
I got off the bus on Massachusetts Avenue, with my ever rain-ready umbrella. The wind howled like a banshee in heat and the rain unlike the warm, sensuous, monsoonal rain in India, was a frigid downpour of icy droplets that stung my tropical skin – a gentle reminder that this late autumn New England rain was really repressed snow. Adjusting the spectacles on my nose, I scrutinized the names of different establishments, looking for the famous Cronin’s.
My heart was going pitter-pat with the nervous flutter of excitement. For, I was going to meet my favorite process philosopher A. N. Whitehead at Cronin’s – we had an appointment at 11 am.
There was no way I could miss Cronin’s – whole bunches of noisy, dank looking undergraduates were going in and exiting the restaurant and bar.
I walked into Cronin’s looking around with nervous expectancy. Cronin’s had three or four large fireplaces – set at strategic angles to each other, exuding warmth – a welcome antidote to the damp chill of a New England Fall/early winter.
Way off there, in a corner, sat an old man with a truly lovely face. A face that was tranquil and yet melancholic; large expressive dark eyes that gazed out at the window at the rain-lashed sidewalks of Cambridge. I approached the table smiling excitedly. A. N. Whitehead looked up from his survey of the rainy street and caught sight of me. Instantly, his face was wreathed in smiles. He rose to his feet and came towards me, arms outstretched, in a gesture of welcome. We sat down and ordered sandwiches and espresso coffees.
“Prof. Whitehead, I am so glad you made the time to see me,” I said. “I heard that you were unwell for a while.”
Whitehead looked at me. “Yes,” he said ruefully. “I had a bad attack of the flu which turned into pneumonia. I am glad I live to tell the tale,” he said, the twinkle returning to his eye.
He looked at me with keen interest: “You are a doctoral student at Calcutta University, spending some time at Yale as an exchange student? You are missing out on a lot of the intense political drama going on in India now, with Gandhi and the freedom movement, aren’t you?”
“Yes”, I replied. “I am afraid I never was a political animal, though my sympathies are clearly with the Indian freedom struggle now in its last stages. Some say we will gain independence from British rule as early as 1947.”
Prof. Whitehead nodded sympathetically.
“You know, my interest in your later philosophy dates back to my teenage years in India,” I remarked. “My father works for the Bengal-Nagpur Railways and so we enjoy privileges not given to many Indians, such as riding first class on the different railways in India.
“Curiously, many of your concepts seem to fit the beauty, the flux and the chaos of the various railways stations that we passed through as well as the diverse landscapes of rural and small town India. Often, fat monsoonal raindrops would coalesce into rivulets, assorted religious mumbles heard in different languages along with the plaintive wail of a beggar woman. All in all, I got a strong sense of transience and perishing as the train pulled out of different stations chugging forward to new adventure, new satisfaction.”
Whitehead’s eyes twinkled and he chuckled deeply.
“That,” he said, wagging his forefinger, “is very reminiscent of my later metaphysics.”
“Yes, Sir”, I replied. “It was meant to do that – your later metaphysics is shot through with a deep awareness of transience mingled with a sense of new adventure.”
Whitehead nodded, “Yes,” he said. “When I came out of mathematical logic, and also my awkward intermediate phase in works like ‘Concept of Nature’, I was deeply struck by the need to capture the transience and imperfection of it all. And yet, to see in that transience and imperfection, not only evil, but also, tragic beauty.”
RA: Prof. Whitehead, would you say that your later metaphysics is shot through with aesthetic concern?
ANW: (brightens visibly) That is so perceptive of you! Aesthetics occupies center stage in my process philosophy.
RA: I remember your privileging aesthetics over mere ‘morality’ in Adventures of Ideas.
ANW: (eyes twinkling) Yes I did. In that book I said “The defence of morals is the battle cry which best rallies stupidity against change.”
RA: (fishes out his tattered copy of Adventures of Ideas and reads) Yes, and after that you say “moral codes have suffered from the exaggerated claims made from them.
Each such code has been put out by a god on a mountaintop, by a saint in a cave, or a divine despot on a throne, or at the very lowest, by ancestors with a wisdom beyond question.”
ANW: (leans forward, cups his chin) For me, art deserves praise for its adventurousness and its creative provocation.
RA: Would you say that for you, morality becomes worthwhile as an “aesthetic ethic” as I call it? After all, you say “The real world is good when it is beautiful.”
ANW: (leans forward with keen excitement in his eyes) Yes. In my last significant publication Modes of Thought, I argue that the moral beauty of the Sermon on the Mount is beautiful. For me, value is primarily an aesthetic function, not a moral or cognitive one.
RA: This is truly exciting – the only ethics worth considering is a hybridized ethics in the service of aesthetics, or, an offshoot of the aesthetic.
ANW: You express that very well. Some have seen a similarity between my thinking and Nietzsche’s. I’m not sure that I agree with that comparison. After all, we come from very different methodologies and presuppositions when it comes to doing philosophy.
RA: I would like to address what many consider to be your lasting contribution to metaphysics: your overcoming the ‘Bifurcation of Nature’. Along with some philosophers of science, phenomenologists and others, you stretch philosophy beyond Descartes and his separation between mind and body, mind and nature.
ANW: (Looks compassionate) Poor Descartes has got really bad press since the 19th century.
I have tried to be as kind to him as possible. But for me, the bottom line is going beyond the bifurcation of nature – mind/body, mind/nature, spiritual/material.
RA: (mischievously) I argued at a conference recently, that your move away from the bifurcation of nature is animism. You seem to see nature as integrated, non-split, and throbbing with aliveness and connection. I was informed that ‘panpsychism’ is a less-loaded word that philosophers can live with more comfortably.
ANW: It is true, that for me, everything is throbbing with aliveness and connection. If that’s what you mean by animism, I have no problems with it.
RA: All actual ‘occasions’, those pulses of momentary experience have some degree of consciousness, aliveness, and physical reality in your later philosophy. The universe is a live dance of actual occasions, atomistic in the sense that each follows its own trajectory and unfolds its own potential, yet these occasions are deeply interconnected.
ANW: (points to a lamppost outside the window, buffeted by the wind and lashed by the rain) Yes! Don’t you see that even that object there, that lamppost, has a dim consciousness – it’s not cognitive, of course, but the electrons in the lamppost are dimly prehending us even as we are dimly prehending them.
RA: I notice that you don’t use the word “apprehension”, “understanding” or any word that suggests cognitive awareness on the part of an inanimate object.
ANW: (laughs) This is why I use the word prehension. It is sub-cognitive, sub-ceptual, it’s a dim, visceral awareness of the other. In this sense, the lamp post prehends me as much as I prehend the lamp post. The electrons in me prehend the electrons in the lamp post.
RA: Are all prehensions visceral feeling states?
ANW: Yes! All prehensions are visceral feeling states that are experiences in varying degrees in intensity. These ‘societies of occasions’ or ‘nexus of occasions’ range from electrons in a rock or a lamp post to an amoeba, a monkey, or a philosopher. My aesthetic vision is deeply intertwined with the concepts of appetition, ‘enjoyment’ and ‘satisfaction’ whereby each actual occasion inherits characteristics of its past (causal efficacy or ‘objective immortality). Each occasion perishes, and in its perishing, thrusts towards the future and lives on in that future.
RA: Doesn’t that reflect in your version of God? Doesn’t your God harmonize the universe for his own satisfaction or appetition. Isn’t your God a somewhat coldly narcissistic god?
ANW: Not quite. While God is seeking his own appetition or enjoyment, you forget, Raj, that my god has other facets to his personality as well. There is “God – the great companion and fellow sufferer – who understands’, and this face of God, if you will, is definitely connected to the face of a cosmic empathetic being, one who is by your side, as you suffer (whether it is a grievous illness, or going through a war or a pandemic, having lost a loved one, or on hearing the awful news that you have roughly three months to live). The idea of God as the ‘great companion’ and ‘fellow sufferer’ at your side, or ‘the one who understands’, is intended to offset any possible narcissism that there might be in the concept of god seeking his own appetition and enjoyment.
RA: I’m so glad you brought up the concept of God as the great companion and fellow sufferer; I think that ‘nature’ of God is really important to understanding God in your philosophy. Otherwise, one can get the impression of your God as the rather bored cosmo-narcissist out for his own gratification.
ANW: If we move away from the Primordial Nature of God, with its platonic baggage of eternal objects/forms, to the Consequent Nature, we are then face-to-face with God the great companion and fellow sufferer who understands, as I put it in Process and Reality.
RA: I think the perhaps plastic perfection of the Primordial Nature of God, has always put me off somewhat–
ANW: (Interrupting) I don’t see it as plastic perfection. The Primordial Nature of God is really a seething cauldron of possibilities. It is not a finished product. It is not a set of ‘oh-so-pure’ platonic forms. While there are echoes of Plato in my concept of God’s primordial nature, I intended it to be more of a repository of possibilities, of exciting potentials, each actual occasion can choose to embrace and actualize as it moves toward its own self-realization.
In no way does God’s Primordial Nature rule by fiat, or impose its will on processual entities.
RA: (Reflectively) I see. So, are you saying the Consequent Nature of God is necessarily flawed?
ANW: (Beaming) Yes, I believe that is what I’m saying. The Consequent Nature of God shows a ‘flawed’ god – flawed, not that he’s evil in some kind of a Gnostic or archonic sense.
He is a god who is ‘in process’, a god who is evolving; and anything in process, anything that’s evolving, must necessarily suffer the taint of imperfection – because it is always choosing from ideal possibilities and falling short of the full actualization of those possibilities. Creativity is shot through with imperfection.
Therefore, God qua the Consequent Nature of God is a limited god, and as such opens the door to God as the fellow sufferer, filled with empathy for the limitations and suffering of the universe.
RA: Your`Consequent Nature of God’ manifests in processes that are flawed, and yet reaching toward a greater completeness?
ANW: Yes, precisely. Thus, there is no `problem of evil’ per se in my later philosophy. God is not all good and all powerful – thus, the problem of evil simply does not arise.
RA: As you state in many of your works, `perfection’ is a lure, a call to greater actualization of what’s possible.
ANW: There is no static `perfection’ in the world. And yet, there is an aesthetic ‘lure’, a divine call, if you will, to more and more complete states of actualization and fulfillment.
RA: Your work certainly has echoes of Leibniz. But I hear you saying that unlike Leibniz, there is no pre-established harmony. Nor, is this the ‘best of all possible worlds’, in any necessary sense.
ANW: Yes, I am influenced by Leibniz to a degree. But, I go on to develop my own sense of a processual harmony that factors in the dissonance created by the freedom of actual occasions to develop in their own way, and encounter tragedy as a part of that process.
For, few actual occasions progress in a neat march toward their full actualization. My ‘harmony’ is neither Leibnizian nor Aristotelian. There is no clean-limbed entelechy in my system. (Laughs.)
RA: One of my favorite purple passages in your work `Adventures of Ideas’ is: `At the heart of the nature of things, there is always the dream of youth and the harvest of tragedy. The universe begins with the dream of youth and ends by reaping tragic beauty.’
ANW: Here, `Youth’ is an archetypal reference to the idealistic urge of new actual occasions and societies of occasions, stretching towards perfection, but not actually realizing it. Hence, it reaps beauty tinged with tragedy.
RA: Is there an elusive aesthetic self in your later thought? I have often tried to stalk some kind of ‘self’ in your later writing, and I sense the dim contours of an aesthetic self in some of your writings.
ANW: (eyes twinkling) One obvious reason why the hunt for any kind of `self’ in my metaphysics seems futile, is that I shy away from terms like the `self’ with its heavy baggage overload,
The self evokes the `bifurcation of Nature’ and the head-locked Cartesian Cogito. I cannot come to terms with an imperial `thinking self’.
RA: Prof. Whitehead, yet I notice that you get really comfortable with a purely human higher-prehensive `consciousness’, only when you talk about art. Indeed, there is a long passage on such consciousness in `Adventures of Ideas’, where consciousness is described as `the factor in experience that makes art possible.’
ANW: Yes, I am beginning to understand what you are driving at. If one gets away from a metaphysical ‘Self’, and a substantial-sounding thinking self, one can begin to dimly sense a small ‘s’ self as the dreamer, the artist and the poet–available as you pointed out, in higher prehensive states which can be called ‘conscious’ at a human level.
Of course, the artist is just as much involved in and inspired by the sub-cognitive, ‘subceptual’ level of prehension as is any society of actual occasions. The task of aesthetic synthesis that results in a completed poem, painting etc. is ‘conscious’ if you like, but this consciousness is not dissociated from the body or from its environment of other actual occasions.
RA: What exactly do you mean by ‘subceptual’? I have a friend Lin, a graduate student in theology at Yale, who uses that term frequently.
ANW: For me, the word ‘subceptual’, like the word ‘prehension’, refers to that which is more primitive than ‘perception’ or ‘apprehension’, both of which are laden with the suggestion of a thinking self that is overseeing and processing ‘consciously’ all the time.
RA: (gazing pensively at the unabated rain and wind reducing the view from the windows to a misty blur): I am fascinated by your concept of ‘objective immortality’, whereby actual occasions live on in their successors. At an intuitive level, one can see the obvious applications to complex ‘higher prehensive’ societies of actual occasions–one lives on in one’s creations–books, works of art and so on. Not to mention biological offspring, and most importantly, in the memories of one’s friends and family.
Is ‘subjective immortality’ compatible with `objective immortality’?
ANW: (shivering slightly in the implacable chill that seeped in, despite the fireplaces at Cronin’s. I was suddenly aware of the tragic processual limitations of his age and mortality): I don’t have a clear answer to that question, I am afraid.
RA: Some would argue that an after death ‘subjective immortality’ is possible for ‘higher’ prehensive societies of actual occasions–perhaps for humans and other intelligent mammals.
ANW: I have often spoken out against the limitations of dogmatic thinking-in ‘Modes of Thought’, I point out that skeptics and traditionalists alike are prone to the dogmatic fallacy.
Therefore, I certainly do not rule out the possibility of subjective immortality.
RA: By ‘subjective immortality’, I certainly don’t mean happy harp-playing in an imaginal ‘heaven’.
ANW: (twinkling): I certainly hope you don’t!
RA: There are other possibilities, besides a static after life, such as reincarnation, which is a commitment to continuing the process of actualizing potentials unrealized in a single life.
RA: You know, many non-European and non-American thinkers are starting to see similarities between your later philosophy and concepts in Asian philosophies.
Certainly, early (Theravada) Buddhism comes to mind as an example of an early process philosophy, which also recognizes the inevitable connection between process and suffering.
ANW: I see that. Yet, I find the Buddha’s 2nd Noble Truth to be somewhat vinegary and pessimistic. Process isn’t only sorrow or suffering–for me, it’s also ripe with partial fulfillment and the lure of future adventure.
There seems to be something so dogmatically limiting about a philosophy that paints life in such a monochromatic way. True, the Buddha has recipes to get us out of the suffering, but I question the dogmatic pessimism.
RA: What about ancient Chinese Daoism (Taoism)? There you seem to have a better fit with your philosophy, though from a very different spatio-temporal context.
ANW: (a warm color suffusing his face, and his eyes lighting up): You know, Raj, it’s wonderful that you brought up that ancient Chinese philosophy–I had a few graduate students from China at Harvard, researching affinities between my approach and that of the Taoists.
RA: There is a rough-hewn similarity between the primordial Dao, and your ‘Primordial Nature of God’. Likewise, the Dao has its own ‘consequent nature’, in that it births things in process.
Like your metaphysics, Daoism is not ‘self’-centric. It embraces the whole subceptual and sub-cognitive universe, and devotes little time to the ‘self’.
RA: Prof. Whitehead, I have truly enjoyed our long cosmic chat. I hope to meet you again.
ANW: Likewise, Raj. This dialogue brought me great satisfaction and joy. Hope we meet again!
(Prof. Raj Ayyar is a philosopher based in Bangalore and has taught philosophy at various prestigious universities and institutes in India and the US, most recently at IIIT-Delhi.)
(Dr Saurabh Todariya is PhD in Philosophy from JNU and is currently exploring the intersections between Phenomenology and Kashmiri Shaivism in NIAS-CSP)
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