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I think I need to read some Whitehead ASAP

by on February 7, 2013

So it seems that if I am going to get on board with Speculative Realism I need to start reading Whitehead and Shaviro.  While I incorrectly criticized Harman several times over these last few weeks (I see very plainly now that I was dead wrong in claiming he was privileging human consciousness), Shaviro has articulated some of my objections with far more insight (and more tact for that matter), as well as pointing out some of what I felt were Harman’s most egregious claims (yes, I needed the vindication). 

I was perhaps most struck by Whitehead’s statement that “every entity must perish- and thereby give way to something new” (285).  Last week, I took offense to Harman implying that there is any constancy in time, echoed by Whitehead’s “time is a perpetual perishing” (285), a position that is certainly in agreement with entropic theory.  This in turn is exactly why I saw no reason for Harman claiming that Whitehead’s ideas would not allow for change, and I think Shaviro correctly criticizes Harman’s drastic overlooking of change over time, as decay always yields a new physical reality.  The object that has lost an atom may still be able to maintain its identity as that object (fine, I concur, I really do), but it is in fact different, and that little free floating atom is also experiencing a vastly different reality, one which may ultimately result in a decision (as Whitehead put it) to remain at large, float into the sun, bind to another atom, catch a ride on a meteor, etcetera.  Either way, all of these relations have most certainly been altered, and it is only in these relations that change is observable, as such I am in total agreement with Shaviro’s statement, “Harman tends to underestimate the importance of change over the course of time, just as he underestimates the vividness and the extent of relations among entities” (285). 

For that matter, Whitehead’s notion that all materials for transformation are already at hand is FAR more plausible than the idea that there are vast reserves of hidden possibilities that exist in substance, which sounds suspiciously close to predestination to me.  Yes, what changes may occur to an object usually take place in relation the physical possibilities/properties of the substances that constitute the object, but that seems to limit the potentiality of change drastically more than change being dependent on relation to other objects.  If the only potential for change is what is already hardwired into the object, that means there is a poverty of possibility, something along the lines that each object only has so many options held within it, which would seem to limit future change more than the idea of “entities whose very being consists in the decisions they make” (287).  While I see that the “ready at hand argument” still limits the potential for change to outside objects and forces that are readily available through their relation to the first object to act upon that object, that is still a far more dynamic set of possibilities than an object changing only in relation to itself, mainly because that seems as though the object wouldn’t really change at all and would mean that objects are not truly susceptible to outside forces if the only changes that can take place are internally present.  If that were the case, wouldn’t it be possible for my desk chair to arbitrarily transform back into the cow its leather was taken from?  That cow is still somewhere in amongst its substance, or its object potential, so by extension it would seem that coming home to find a cow standing in front of my desk would be a valid possibility for the object that is my chair.

 To me, this gradual change on account of the laws of physics and entropy is far more plausible than change being restricted to the conditions of objects as they are now, which just seems to set very concrete limits on what can potentially “happen” to an object.  While I have to leave for work now, I do look forward to reading Harman’s response to Shaviro, and will reserve further judgment until doing so.     

  1. traviswmatteson permalink

    Undergirding your above argument with physics seems to me to resonate with Michel Serres’s suggestion that every metaphysics has a companion physics. I’ve recently become interested in ways in which our understanding of philosophy is circumscribed by our understanding of physics. For instance, Steven Connor has recently explored the influence of ether theory on early twentieth century thought, in “The Matter of Air: Science and Art of the Ethereal.” I’m curious if we can make a connection between OOO and something like the Higgs Boson “discovery,” especially since the Higgs research has sparked renewed comparisions with ether theory. In what ways can we conceive of Harman’s (et al.) object-orientation as undergirded—consciously or not—by the contemporary advances in physics?

  2. 7sshare permalink

    I’m also interested in Whitehead after reading this article. His taking into account of flux and interrelatedness makes infinitely more sense to me than Harman’s view of the universe does. While trying to respectfully pay his dues to Harman, Shaviro succeeded in making his argument seem utterly ridiculous to me. In light of all our discoveries about the ‘decentering of the subject,’ about how no man is an island, the interdependence of ecosystems, etc., etc., Harman wants to claim that everything in the Universe is withdrawn into a vacuum of individuality? It seems to me like he is flying in the face of all science and of common sense.

  3. jmdaven permalink

    Though I certainly prefer Whitehead to Harman, I think there are some issues with an ontology of process that remain unaddressed. Surely, actually reading Process and Reality would probably provide some clarification, and I plant to do so shortly. At the moment though, despite the strength of process compared to Harman’s quadruple ontology, I think Harman has some valid objections. For instance, process would seem to presuppose some relation, and some object, and some initiation, or some circularity that remain unaccounted for.

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