Harman’s “Response to Shaviro”: Whitehead’s God and the Question of Freedom
So, just finished another article in The Speculative Turn, namely, Graham’s “Response to Shaviro.” I’d read Shaviro’s article some time ago, and I was definitely curious to see how he responded to these arguments, which I find in general convincing.
Graham’s got some extreme statements (in contrast to the more ‘modest’ claims of the article by Levi I reviewed in my preceding post): “. . . I hold that ONLY a non-relational model of objects is capable of accounting for both the transient and enduring faces of reality . . . in fact the ONLY way to account for becoming is with a non-relational ontology” (291-2, caps mine, italics in original).
So these are pretty big claims, and far from claiming that OOO is one lens amongst many. What’s more, Graham argues that Whitehead is the true philosopher of stasis. Now, were the sides of Whitehead those which Graham delineates the full story of Whitehead’s metaphysics, he would of course be quite right.
Unfortunately, the reading of Whitehead is extremely one-sided. Harman argues that while Whitehead has a notion of privacy of actual occasions, he does nothing to support this notion. Were this true, it would do all the things to Whitehead’s view of the world that Harman argues, namely, produce a hall-of-mirrors in which change is impossible.
But Whitehead’s explanation of privacy hinges, at least partially, on his notion of ‘negative prehensions.’ This explains precisely how it is that some entities refuse some options presented to them by their prehensions of the world. Why? Because in privacy, there’s more to these actual occasions than meets the eye. But there’s more to privacy than just this. For in fact, actual occasions have another sense of potential novelty, namely, the fact that they have some freedom in relation to their prehensions. They can add something, over and above all the contributions of their prehensions, to what they receive from the world around them. This is accomplished by the manner in which conceptual feelings ingress in actual occasions in a manner which isn’t immediately predictable from their prehensions.
Where does all this potential for novelty come from? For Whitehead, it comes from God, from his primordial nature, that which presents the possibility for allures of non-determined ways of being to any and all actual occasions. God presents freedom, actual occasions simply actualize it. Of course, these are two sides of the same, for the evidence of God’s existence is that actual occasions continually present us with the new, with evidence of their freedom.
The problem, however, is that most actual occasions, even when they choose differently from what they are supposed to, have very few effects. I mean, who has ever heard of a quantum particle’s decision making history?
This depends of course, on the system in which that quantum particle is located. and in the right situation, a quantum event can cascade into others, and potentially give rise to enormous consequences. Isn’t this precisely what is known, these days, as emergence?
Point is, difference is shot through Whitehead’s reality at all levels of scale, and I’m not sure why, but Graham mentions neither negative prehensions nor Whitehead’s very controversial notion of God in his rebuttal of Shaviro. It would be one thing if he provided responses to this side of Whitehead, but in simply ignoring them, I’m not sure exactly what’s going on. Either way, its a very selective reading, and truly distorts the Whitehead I’ve come to know. While Graham relies on the fact that Whitehead argues that actual occasions are the final arbiter of reality (and hence sees no need to go further), this does not mean he has fully described actual entities. For in fact, Whitehead spends large chunks of the later parts of Process and Reality talking precisely about freedom and god. I think Graham needs to speak to these sides of Whitehead before dismissing him.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Graham is quite right about some things in his essay. When he argues that relations are not the same as process, I think he has a point. Even though these terms are often conflated in the contemporary philosophical blogosphere, they are not necessarily the same. I often identify as a process-relational theorist, but this is a major shorthand, for I think my position is actually far different from what these terms often mean to many. For one, I think much of what I believe is strongly influenced by Whitehead. I believe, in fact, that difference and the potential for difference is shot through what is at all levels. And while I see Graham’s point that it’s possible to do away with the notion of potential/virtual powers if you have withdrawn objects that manifest new relations (and that time may be derivative of this), I don’t think this is the only way to explain change. I think Whitehead’s approach here, to which mine owes a great deal, does fine as well.
And perhaps this is where I find the exclusivity of Graham’s approach in this essay worrisome. Had he said that OOO is one approach amongst many, then perhaps there wouldn’t need to be such a selective reading of Whitehead, one which truly distorts his approach to the world. This is why I maintain that its very possible for there to be relational approaches to the world which don’t REDUCE entities to relations. Maybe this shouldn’t be called relational, any more than OOO should be called objectal. But the fact is, things are, can, and should be a little complex, I think, than presented here.
Don’t get me wrong, I think OOO has a LOT to offer the world. But I think it also shouldn’t do so exclusively, or by ignoring aspects of folks like Whitehead.