Processing Contingency with Theology:A Defense of Whitehead's Pragmatism
Contemporary debates about the implications of contingency are understatedly vast. One central question is whether or not a metaphysics of contingency is a contradiction of terms. Of course, how one answers this question in large part depends on what else one means by the terms of the question. Metaphysics, according to Alfred North Whitehead's redescription, is not conceivably the sort of thing one could so much as avoid. Metaphysics is "nothing but the description of the generalities which apply to all the details of practice."1 It is true that the contingency of our starting points and formulations makes it such that our everyday experience underdetermines our metaphysical generalities. Thus, one may have very good pragmatic reasons for not engaging in such a project. But it is another claim entirely to say that all such efforts violate pragmatic scruples. One cannot avoid metaphysics in the sense of denying the metaphysical implications of one's epistemic structures.
A relationship between metaphysics and contingency is implicit in the foregoing characterization. This characterization is in tension with an alternative recently proposed by Nancy Frankenberry, a proposal that has negative consequences for Whitehead's theology. While I generally agree with many of Frankenberry's philosophical proclivities, I disagree with her on two points. First, I differ in my account of the implications of contingency for philosophy. Second, I differ in thinking that there is a pragmatic warrant for Whitehead's distinctive form of God-talk—pragmatic in the sense that his theology aims to elucidate certain elements ubiquitous in experience. This second point is directly related to the first, since how one understands contingency informs how one sees metaphysics as warranted or unwarranted. Further, whether or not one sees metaphysics as warranted by the implications of contingency has a lot to do with how one understands the relationship of referentiality—that is, how it is that we talk about something, and the ontological status of that [End Page 36] something. Moreover, how one understands reference to work informs one's understanding of the relationship between language and what language is about. If what counts as an object on a given account is either too scientistic or idealistic, then the pragmatism of Whitehead's God-talk will be quickly overlooked.
In service of a more charitable reading of Whitehead, I will offer a critique of the most recent attempt to remove the theological linchpin from Whitehead's metaphysics, and in due course, I will detail what is at stake in debates about Whitehead's philosophical theology. Perhaps we will come to a place where theology could just as easily be atheology, with no structural compromises made to Whitehead's metaphysics. The distinction between theology and atheology may be a distinction that makes no pragmatic difference, save for the imaginative force of theological characterization—but this may well be difference enough to warrant the theology.
II. Contingency "All the Way Down"
In her recent article "Contingency All the Way Down," Nancy Frankenberry advocates for detheologizing Whitehead's philosophy. Such detheologizing is meant to allow mystery to "float free in a cloud of unknowing, without being converted into a subtle form of knowing."2 Her alternative proposal is something akin, in her own words, to Keat's "negative capability"—the capacity for "being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."3 I argue that a fallibilist ethic such as this is compatible with efforts to think the world in which that ethic is rightly prescribable.
Frankenberry's position represents one candidate for understanding the consequences of contingency for philosophy. In considering her proposal, I have encountered some difficulty on at least two points. The first is the pragmatic contradiction involved in advocating for a particular understanding of ourselves and the world while simultaneously critiquing any such worldview. The second concerns the idea that claims to ultimacy can be dismissed by declaration. We may well heed Frankenberry's warning against the temptation of making claims to ultimacy, but it is something very different to ignore the fact of the temptation altogether. Much can come from an inquiry into the reasons for such a temptation to affirming ultimacy, to the yearning of the human spirit to push beyond mere contingency by better understanding it. [End Page 37]
Frankenberry describes her alternative to Whiteheadian theology as "precisely the style of spirituality that Rorty has in mind when he commends pragmatism as a guard against our desire to find something to worship."4 In short, she argues that Whitehead's system ought to have done without the theology, because, by its own lights, it neither requires nor allows such speculative redescriptions. Contingency all the way down, as I understand it, means that we have no where to stand that does not radically restrict our ways of knowing to our ways of speaking, and our ways of speaking to our incurable situatedness and perspectivalness. While I agree that, at the outset, we have no unconditioned place to stand, this is not the last word on the matter. (After all, Whitehead would have critiqued the spatialized depiction of contingency—a product of latent substance metaphysics.) Rather, the resident hope of metaphysics ought to be that awareness of contingency is but a starting point for our thinking about what it means to be contingent beings in a contingent world. This is a pragmatic hope, one that I think is implicit in rationality itself, insofar as it entails a preliminary faith that the world must make sense, must cohere or hang together in the way we demand that reasons do through inferential linkages. From this point of view, contingency is not a final silencing of inquiry—to say that it is would be to misunderstand the nature of contingency according to an antiquated metaphysical picture. Contingency, according to a metaphysics that rejects the notion of vacuous actualities for one of real relatedness, is merely one of the terms of the discussion.
Frankenberry understands her proposal for contingency all the way down as the "fate" of pragmatic naturalism and radical empiricism alike. She does not intend to deny the reality of experience—"havings" in contrast with "knowings," understood in terms of Peircean Secondness—even though she is fully committed to the linguistic turn. There is a middle ground that she wishes to occupy: "The linguistic turn, as I understand it, entails more than just 'talking about talking about something.' It is fundamentally a recognition of the fact that we have no account of thoughts save by reference to language. … Semantic holism adds to this the idea that we can understand the larger features of reality by studying our ways of talking about it."5 I appreciate this explanation of her amended endorsement of Rorty's account of the status of "experience" because, I believe, at the very core of pragmatism is the conviction that language and experience are Janus faced. Cheryl Misak once argued, "Much of the damage Rorty has [End Page 38] done to pragmatism comes from setting up a false choice between language or experience."6 However, despite qualification, there is good reason to think that Frankenberry has not provided the most pragmatic option available to us—or even the most Davidsonian option.7 After all, if semantic holism says that we can understand the "larger features of reality" by examining our ways of speaking about it, we are also implicitly saying something about how the world is and about how we relate to it that makes possible the three-cornered relation of speaker, interpreter, and external environment.
I suggest that such implicit claims about the world are, if not in content then at least in form, unavoidable. Such forms are what our practices unavoidably presuppose. What our practices presuppose—for instance, our linguistic practices—will no doubt be in dispute, but that certain things are presupposed ought not be. Despite Frankenberry's remark that pragmatists tend to "choke" on the word "a priori,"8 I think that practical presuppositions are helpfully termed pragmatic a prioris.
It will be my purpose in this next section to argue against the idea that "contingency has the last word" for Whitehead's metaphysics, and that his theology is mere speculative excess. Frankenberry leans too heavily on two sentences from Process and Reality to make her case. The first is: "It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity."9 The second is: "Apart from things that are actual, there is nothing."10 The former captures his principle of process; the latter captures his ontological principle. Taken in the context of [End Page 39] Whitehead's larger systematic thought, however, neither principle is violated by Whitehead's notion of eternal objects and his closely related theological developments. Allow me a brief aside to preview how.
III. Translating "Eternal Objects"
Insofar as Whitehead's ontology takes concrete relationships (what he terms "prehensions") as the only means of explanation, it follows that there must be different types of relationships or relational complexes generative of different phenomena. In other words, we must be able to explain the difference between the process constitutive of igneous rock and that of the carpenter's cabinetry designs. And we must be able to do this without invoking an ontological distinction between the sorts of things constituted by means of causal relations and the sorts of things constituted by rational relations; without, that is, the bifurcation of nature, and therefore without the sorts of idealism pejoratively named "Platonist" (although it is important to note that Whitehead does not share such idealist readings of Plato).
One way Whitehead avoids such issues is through the distinction between formal and informal constitution. Keeping this distinction in mind will help readers resist an unhelpful metaphysical picture when interpreting what follows in this chapter. Whitehead wanted to account for how "possibility which transcends realized temporal matter of fact has a real relevance to the creative advance."11 Matters of fact are "actual entities"—they make up the givenness of the past and are causally efficacious for the future. Possibilities are "eternal objects"—they exhibit the indeterminateness out of which determinateness occurs. Actual entities and eternal objects are only separate in their "formal constitutions," or for the purposes of analysis. Whitehead's system is emphatically not dualistic. Actual entities are the final real things. While it is atomistic, his system is not one of vacuous actualities. Actual entities are internally related to one another in temporal succession, and the manners in which they become, or the quality or character they have and contribute to the future, exhibit the realization of some possibility. Informally, then, actual entities and eternal objects are mutually implicative. We never encounter them except informally constituted—their interplay is Whitehead's way of accounting for the efficacy of both causality and purpose in the world. And he makes explicit this distinction between formal and informal constitution in order to maintain the difference between our ways of speaking for the purposes of metaphysical analysis and reality. [End Page 40]
"'Actuality,'" writes Whitehead, "is the fundamental exemplification of composition."12 The actual entity is composed by its modes of real togetherness with other actualities. It is because actual entities are composites that Whitehead refers to the process of composition as a "concrescing," which is a biological term for the coalescing or conjoining of what was formerly disjointed. This doctrine of actual entities is the inversion of the one to which Hume gave expression when he wrote that objects "in themselves" never imply the existence of other objects.
On Whitehead's account, it is precisely because actuality is fundamentally compositional—is, in principle, real togetherness—that the notion of "a common world" makes any sense.13 Just how an actuality exemplifies this common world, adding to it in the achievement of this exemplification, is what constitutes it as actual. The possible "hows" in this context are eternal objects qua potentials without respect to any particular determination of fact. Actual entities differ from one another—they are, in a genuine sense, individuals—because of how they realize potentials; "whatever component is red, might have been green, and whatever component is loved; might have been coldly esteemed."14 Determination occurs by means of incompatible possibilities; something cannot be, in the same way, both red and green, both loved and unloved. There is a principle of limitation evidenced by actuality that must constitute the relations among pure potentials. Whitehead describes this principle ordering among pure potentials as a graded relevance of possibility.
Whitehead refuses to use the classical term "universals" for these modes of determination, because the term, indexed to substance-quality metaphysics, denies the real togetherness of the particulars to which they purportedly apply. Before Whitehead introduces his peculiar vernacular, however, he offers a rare description of how the old term "universals" might be employed in his revised sense. "Universals" are the terms of which the "definiteness" or determinateness of immediate experience is exhibited. "But such universals," he explains, "by their very character of universality, embody the potentiality of other facts with variant types of definiteness."15 This is why what is the case always tells us something about what was and may be the case; it is the basis of the continuity of nature presupposed by inductive reasoning.
The ways in which actualities become determinate—the realization of particular relations to actualities of its immediate past—are what Whitehead [End Page 41] means by the "ingression" of eternal objects. Ingression is emphatically not to be conceived as the transition from nonbeing into being of the Platonic Idea; ingression is, rather, properly conceived as the "evocation of determination out of indetermination."16 The language of evocation is intentional, because Whitehead is concerned to restore a proper balance between efficient and final causation. The creative advance, the passage of nature, is not the brute efficient causality of bald naturalism. Actual entities, the facts constitutive of the "common world," are not sufficiently explained simply by means of causal relation to the immediate past, but by purposive relation the facts. When temporality is written back into the count of ultimately real things—when individual facts cease to be billiard balls atomically strung together in a temporal extension that bears no internal relation to their constitution—coercion and force cease to be the only expressions of power in the world. Appetition becomes plausible as a mode the self-determination of actualities.
Whitehead employs contested theological language to explain how possibility has, according to the demands of the Ontological Principle, gradations of real relatedness to the actual world. It is only by way of the appetitive element in some actual occasion that makes the graded relevance of potentials objects available for prehension for temporal actual occasions. This actual occasion, in order to serve this function, must be everlasting. Whitehead names the everlasting actual occasion "God" because it stands in contrast to the "world" as that which perishes or passes. That aspect of the nontemporal actual occasion that has yet to become actual, qua everlasting, is termed the "Primordial Nature" of God. God, as the only nontemporal actual occasion, is logically required by Whitehead's metaphysics, insofar as it stands for the principle of appetition and the principle of limitation requisite for creativity—requisite, that is, to any understanding of the final metaphysical fact of continuity among change, and change among continuity.
It is only because of the relevance of pure potentials to actual subjects that appetition can enter the picture as a self-generating power. "Appetition is immediate matter of fact including in itself a principle of unrest, involving realization of what may or may not be," explains Whitehead.17 Actualities, in their becoming or concrescing, are the subjects of prehension or feeling—this is the broader sense of "experience," so far devoid of consciousness or self-consciousness. To experience is to be the subject prehending objects. All subjects become objects for novel subjects; become, that is, part of the givenness of the actual world: "Actuality in perishing acquires objectivity, while it loses [End Page 42] subjective immediacy. It loses the final causation which is its internal principle of unrest, and it acquires efficient causation whereby it is a ground of obligation characterizing the creativity."18 Efficient causation entails the notion of givenness or determinateness, and such givenness is a requisite of the passage of nature. The logical counterrequisite, however, is the element of unrest; the indeterminate that is nevertheless in relation to the actual. This in-relation is, again, by way of a nonderivative actuality that is unlimited by its prehensions of (in the technical sense of not being fully determinate by relatedness to) the actual world.19
Whitehead therefore insists that one cannot isolate eternal objects. There are no "essences" in his metaphysics. Thus, whereas eternal objects are "pure potentials," pure potentials only make sense in abstraction from actuality, by actual things, and as potentials for actuality. In other words, their formal constitution only makes sense when indexed to their informal constitution. The function of "God" is to serve as the principle of order among potentials as they relate to the world as catalysts for each novel response to the past. In order to envision this graded relevance of potentials in actuality, Whitehead postulates such possibilities in abstraction of any historical predispositions. God's subjective aim is this nontemporal total evaluation of possibility, such that God's perspective on the full sweep of possibility aims at those relations that will be best for the creative advance. Without this primordial subjective aim, Whitehead thinks, we cannot account for how new things assume novel integrations of the past. Of course, the assumption here is that strict determinism cannot account for novelty, and if this is true, then Whitehead thinks we need to speak of subjective aims as opposed to only objective ones, or to speak of final causation instead of mere efficient causation. Whitehead nominates God to refer to the total indeterminism of the past; to the togetherness of real potential for subjects. Potential that does not occupy a separate ontological realm, but inheres among and within actuality—actuality properly understood in terms of quanta rather than substances.
For Whitehead, metaphysics thereby operates as the working out of onto-epistemological entailments of what we do in practice (it is, at once, a theory of actuality and of our knowing qua actual). Accordingly, a world in which contingency is the rule becomes occasion to think what else must be the case given the fact that we can make that judgment. Yes, this would be a judgment of contingent necessity, but I fail to see why we would want anything stronger than this. Indeed, we cannot have anything stronger than this in Whitehead, [End Page 43] because, as I read him, metaphysics proves itself by its pragmatic usefulness in making sense of this world, and has no business making claims that cannot be judged by the dual criteria of adequacy and applicability. Furthermore, to speak of necessity preexisting the actual would violate the ontological principle. God and eternal objects, however, do not.
IV. Language and Instrumentality
Returning to my central argument, we can begin with the judgment that it is true that the world as we know it lends itself to linguistic expression. Of course it lends itself to other forms of expression, but, to Frankenberry's point, insofar as we are discursively aware of these forms of expression, we are caught up in a linguistic one. So it is worth starting there and seeing where it can get us. With respect to the notion of contingency, it seems as though one cannot coherently support contingency all the way down without acknowledgement of a hope that one has at least gotten that right. And if this is true, then it follows that one must think that the way things are warrants this judgment, which further presumes that there is some direction given to our thinking about these things that could lead to better or worse conclusions.
Why should the very temptation to speak of contingency "on the whole" or "all the way down" not authorize us to make tentative metaphysical claims in this way? It is philosophically significant that we can recognize our contingency, and the fear of drawing out the implications of this fact strikes me as a sort of Cartesian hangover. It is the result of a dualism between scheme and content that a Davidsonian would passionately reject. What is so interesting is not that we are contingent, but that, given our contingency, we can know that we are and so, in some respect, can recognize the transcendental nature of this pragmatic truth. If contingency vitiated any attempts to understand it, we wouldn't know we were contingent—in the same way that, as Davidson would say, we couldn't recognize a speech act as a speech act if it was wholly incommensurable with our own. I think the same sort of transcendental argument can be made in both cases. There is a practical warrant to make the claim that a noncontingent fact can be deduced from a contingent one. This is just the sort of pragmatic warrant that Whitehead seeks in his speculative work. As I read him, Whitehead sees that, within our contingency, there are certain transcendental conditions of practice and discourse that make possible our openness to this fact itself—something like pragmatic a prioris. It is in the search for such pragmatic a prioris that we come to the metaphysics of the instrument, because the fact that they are instruments tells us a bit about the world in which they obtain. [End Page 44]
One problem with attempts to disable the constructive aspects of projects like Whitehead's is that they trivialize language to the point that they undermine the very tool on which these attempts utterly depend. While such critiques recognize the distinction between language as a tool of thought and language as thought, and so distinguish themselves from unhelpful caricatures of Derridean deconstruction, they have fallen short of occupying a viable alternative. They have fallen short because there is a metaphysics of the instrument which is implicitly ignored. When the world which has been instrumentalized, along with that for whom the instrument functions, are denied, the blunder is a familiar one—it presents as a case of the fallacy of simple location.
This point—about the metaphysics of the instrument—has at least two immediately possible implications. First, as an extension of Frankenberry's (and Wittgenstein's, and Davidson's) own point, we can say that the use of a tool for self-repair presupposes a basic confidence in the utility of that tool. Thus, if one challenges the referential or truth-tracking capabilities of language by re-description, then one presumes that language was effective at least in calling its own bluff. Second, instrumentality implies a tripartite structure. Sidney Hook, a direct "disciple" of Dewey, can help us see potential metaphysical implications of Dewey's pragmatism—implications that could, I should point out as a side note, complicate Frankenberry's scruples with Dewey's account of the difference between "knowings" and "havings" in experience. Hook argued that instruments are signs with three references: (1) with respect to some thought responsible for its construction and existence as a tool; (2) it is an instrument for some aggregate of entities or domain of relations to/in which it is to be applied; and (3) it is an instrument because of its form, arrangement, or structure.
These relations reveal "nature instrumentalized in nature," "grown or brought to self-consciousness."20 Cognition, for instance, is an instrument whose functioning is conditioned by certain structural organizations in nature. The "ultimate forms" of cognition thus have metaphysical reference, Hook argues, which just are the ineliminable structural relations generative of thought. But though these relations are necessary (because inconceivably eliminable by thought), they are never sufficient, because the forms of thought facilitated and pursued are relative to our purposes—purposes that are not necessitated by thought.21 Ideas and instruments grow, and they do so for the same reason:
The material operated upon is not completely and finally integrated. When the idea balks at this internal, insuppressible rhythm and dialectic, and [End Page 45] attempts to twist and torture its subject-matter into some sort of stability, it goes astray and results in an epistemology or an eschatology. The very instrument with which the epistemologist pens his question and states his problem should furnish the solution to it, one radically different to be sure from what he was led to expect. For the theory of knowledge is the theory of the instrument.22
What Hook here argues for is a concordance in theory with what is going on at the level of practice in, for instance, our thinking about the contingency of structure or order. We ought to look at what our thinking itself presupposes, and allow that awareness to qualify our conclusions. In the same way, thinking about pragmatism as a method carries with it a host of metaphysical implications. Thus, those who would characterize pragmatism as antimetaphysical because it is "just a method" are likely to have an insufficient grasp on what someone like Whitehead means by metaphysics as that which every proposition implies. Hook, again, argued: "This emphasis on 'the instrument' is not an evasion of metaphysics but a challenge to one."23 Pragmatism can, by its own lights, analyze the implications of what it means to have a method, and do so by examining the generic traits of existence that make that method a fruitful one in revealing them. This examination includes, but is not limited to, the general aspects of linguistic practice—though I agree with Frankenberry that it is helpful to begin where we are, always already within discourse.
Underwriting this account of the pragmatic method as metaphysically perspicuous is the idea that apparent contradictions in thought can be resolved by elucidations of practice. This is a variation of the idea that disagreement presupposes a vast degree of pragmatic agreement to even come into view. Notions of the incommensurability of language games or the possibility of radically different systems of logic are incoherent, because to say this is to forget the very structures of thought that guide us even in our "effort to revolt against them."24 Paying attention, best we can, to the practical conditions of possibility for language use, and cognitive activity more broadly, can reveal something akin to pragmatic a prioris or transcendental conditions of practice.
Central to this pragmatic approach is a notion of reality as defined by real effects, which obtain among actualities. Whitehead's principle of efficient and final causation—also known as his ontological principle—is the idea that "every condition to which the process of becoming conforms in any particular instance has its reason either in the character of some actual entity in the actual world [End Page 46] of that concrescence, or in the character of the subject which is in process of concrescence."25 This is to say that the ontologically real is the pragmatically real, and vice versa. And, further, that to understand the pragmatic reality of something like eternal objects or subjective aims, one must understand reality in terms of functionality. To "function", as Whitehead articulates it, means to contribute determinateness. Determinateness is further analyzable into "definiteness" (E. O.) and "position" (A. E.), where "definiteness" is a particular gradient of quality, and "position" is a relational status in respect to other actualities.26 To understand something's "function" is to understand its pragmatic reality, which just is to understand determinateness as constituted by the community of the diverse functioning of all actualities. Within his system, God and eternal objects function in order to make sense of the possibility of actual entities (aka, the only reasons) obtaining by means of the functional interrelatedness of reality, to make sense of flux within permanence and permanence within flux, and to make sense of genuine novelty amid the givenness of history.
The notion of pragmatic or functional reality is central to see why the attempt to detheologize Whitehead is, if not misguided, at least in need of more clarity on what in particular is at issue. The project itself seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to the term "God" rather than to the actual functional, pragmatic reality identified under the designator. Such surgical efforts appear to be predicated upon a different reading of Whitehead than mine when they argue (as Robert Neville does) that the effort to defend Whitehead as providing a metaphysical justification for radical empiricism, "requires excising his conceptions of God, and perhaps reinterpreting his theory of eternal objects, while bolstering his theory of causal relatedness."27 An alternative understanding of what Whitehead is actually doing with the idea of "God" and the category of eternal objects (mistakenly read in Platonic terms, absent his ontological principle) will expose the unviability of such an excision.
V. God as Actuality without Temporality
The language of the "primordial envisagement of possibility," which constitutes one aspect of God for Whitehead, is a sort of metaphysical depiction of the principle of limitation, which attempts to make sense of the graded range of [End Page 47] possibilities available to every actual occasion. We need not speak theologically to do this, but there are good pragmatic reasons—the full elucidation of which exceeds the scope of this paper—for continuing to employ this "broken symbol," as Neville would say. We need a way of speaking about possibility in abstraction from actuality, and this Whitehead does by way of eternal objects. But possibility must be for something, and this for-ness Whitehead accounts for with God qua the only nontemporal actual entity. Qua actual, God can serves as a reason; qua nontemporal, God has no past and therefore has no possibility foreclosed. God stands for the real relatedness of possibility, providing both the principle of unrest (appetition) and the principle of limitation (real potential or conditioned freedom) of creativity.
Contingency is conditionedness. The compositionality of actuality, the fact that relatedness is internally constitutive of actual things, does not only restrict freedom but occasions it. Contingency, in short, is the constraint that makes freedom determinate. Only conditioned freedom can be actual. It is in this way that contingency poses no threat to relatedness—quite the opposite. And insofar as mind is a mode of relation, contingency is not only compatible with, but also entailed by, epistemological togetherness. Fragmentariness, not finitude, is the problem. And insofar as process necessarily involves selection, process is both the cause of fragmentariness and the means of its overcoming. Or, in Whitehead's terms, "Selection is at once the measure of evil, and the process of its evasion."28
Our judgments are selections of focus. Their contingency, their expression in terms of sign-events, ensures that they are never the full expression of a proposition. But there is nothing prohibiting our giving the approximating activity of linguistic expression to the character of relations in the causal nexus constituting a subject's actual world. The "judging subject" and the "logical subjects" refer to a universe that has "the general metaphysical character which represents its 'patience' for those subjects, and also its 'patience' for those eternal objects."29 What this means is that the character of the judging subject, and the logical subjects of its judgments, tells us something about the character of the universe that has the capacity to accept or tolerate such subjects—the capacity for such subjects to inhere. Yet how a subject self-constitutes is underdetermined by the data the world-to-date provides.
This ontological underdetermination underwrites the primary difference between actual entities and eternal objects. The distinction is a functional one, where "function" is defined in terms of contribution to determinateness. [End Page 48] To understand something's "function" is to understand its pragmatic reality. And further, something's reality just is its determinateness as constituted by the community of the diverse functioning of all actualities. So actual entities have reality with regard to their concrete relatedness, and eternal objects are real insofar as they enjoy ingression within the material matrix in the forms of the relations and character of the concrete actualities. Whereas the material matrix that provides the objective datum is determinate, how this datum contributes to new datum is indeterminate.
God provides the initial aim for each novel actual entity, which is how White-head accounts for the "whence" of the initial "gradations of relevance of eternal objects" or real potentials for becoming.30 As a novel entity emerges into a self-coherent reality, its initial coherence as to how it will self-define from within the position it finds itself has to be catalyzed. God is the catalyst, the "goad towards novelty."31 God is how Whitehead makes sense of there being a "somewhere" from which novel patterns of energy or purposes arise that, on the whole, serve the creative advance.
God is that actual entity without a past and therefore without derivative conceptual feelings, which simply means that God is free to feel all possibility with mutual immediacy.32 God's primordial nature is the concrescence of pure conceptual feeling in this mutual immediacy. This concrescence, as any concrescence, is directed by God's subjective aim. God's subjective aim is at feeling the full sweep of possibility such as to provide order for the creative advance.33 God's primordial envisagement is the achievement of this subjective aim, insofar as it provides the initial object of conceptual prehension for each emerging actual entity.
God thereby serves as the lure directing novel entities dispositionally into existence in a way best attuned to creative process. This disposition is mutually in service to God's consequent nature, because such actualities become the actual world which realizes God's primordial nature. Therefore, the more actual entities veer off course from the initial aim, the more discord arises, and discord inhibits the subjective aim of God, which is the "intensification of formal immediacy.34 The "intensification of formal immediacy" just means that God aims to incorporate each actuality into the divine subjective harmony [End Page 49] such that the creative process advances with the greatest possible reservoir of created value at work. You could say that God "aims" at this, but it is more correct to say that Creativity creates God for the purposes of further creation. Indeed, Whitehead writes that, while "order" and "novelty" are but instruments of God's own subjectivity, God Godself is the "outcome of creativity."35 And God is the instrument of the World just as much as the World is the instrument of God. This means, on my reading, that for the creative advance as such to make sense, there must be a dialectic between actuality and possibility, freedom and necessity that works to produce order instead of chaos, or freedom both within and because of normative constraints.
Eternal objects, particularly their ordering in the primordial envisagement of God, are how Whitehead makes sense of freedom within necessity. Whitehead writes, "An actual entity in the actual world of a subject must enter into the concrescence of that subject by some simple causal feeling, however vague, trivial, and submerged."36 There is no such necessity with regard to how eternal objects are felt in conceptual feelings. The conceptual pole of a concrescing subject thereby constitutes the freedom of that subject. Whereas actualities "have to be felt," eternal objects as "pure potentials can be dismissed."37 But how can we make sense of this indeterminate relation between eternal objects and actuality if not by invoking some degree of Platonism? That is, without invoking some sense in which forms exist out of relation to actualities?
We must inspect the notion of "conceptual feeling." Whitehead describes a conceptual feeling as feeling the capacity of a "pure potential" for "being a realized determinant of process."38 How can a capacity be felt? A capacity can be understood as a degree of capaciousness or openness, but it can also be understood as an ability. I think both are needed to understand what Whitehead is getting at in this passage. A capacity, when it is an object of prehension, must be somewhere according to the ontological principle. It must, in other words, be a realizable possibility. At the same time, however, as a capacity, it is a not-yet, it is unfulfilled—that is to say, the capacity is transcendent because it is unrealized and not yet determinate with respect to some particular form it will take. It has a functional transcendence. This function must be somewhere, according to the ontological principle, and this somewhere is God. As Whitehead writes, "There is no character belonging to the actual apart from [End Page 50] its exclusive determination by selected eternal objects. The [very] definiteness of the actual arises from the exclusiveness of eternal objects in their function of determinants."39 This "exclusiveness" that Whitehead speaks of just is the principle of limitation, which is both constitutive of and the aim of God's primordial nature. It is because God serves as the Whence of relevant capabilities that capacities subsist as real potentials within actualities, which have the character they do because of this subsistence.
We can speak of the definiteness of actual entities only by reference to what could not be definite; by reference to the fact of incompatible alternatives, which is the ultimate fact in virtue of which there is definite character. In short, it makes no sense to say that an actual entity is this, if that does not then imply by the nature of the case that it is not that.40 But then this just is feeling a capacity, as in a capacity for exclusiveness. If this is possible to make sense of, then it should be equally possible to make sense of how we could feel the capacity for a positive determinant of character. When this happens, an eternal object is informing a feeling. Such informing requires as a condition of its operation a conformation to those finite components constituting the determinate position of the feeling. This is to say that the informing by a pure potential of a feeling requires the conspiracy of an actual world, from which the concrescing subject devises a coherent function with respect to itself.41
If the ingression of an eternal object in actuality—and so the realization of a character or quality—makes sense only with respect to the conspiracy of an actual world, the opposite is just as true. That is, to speak of freedom and novelty within actuality invites the language of possibility and pure potentiality. It is for this reason that Whitehead's notion of eternal objects has pragmatic value, insofar as it facilitates examination of the conditions of possibility for us to speak of possibility itself. [End Page 51]
The benefit of reading Whitehead's notion of eternal objects and of the primordial nature of God in this way is that we remain true to a pragmatist approach to discourse. The pragmatist, seeing the content of terms and concepts not in essentialist-correspondentist terms but in terms of exchanges of use, will concern herself only with the pragmatic reality that a term seeks to reference and the social practices that institute its conceptual content. The use of the terms "God" and "Eternal Object" to designate the functional reality of possibility and novelty in abstraction from particular realizations operate in much the same way as speaking of "red" without any reference to particular instantiations of "red" does. To be fair, these terms are historically problematic in ways that "red" is not, and the choice may therefore be revisable, but the difference is one of degree, not kind. We may use Whitehead's alternative description of eternal objects as "Pure Potentials for the Specific Determination of Fact" or "Forms of Definiteness,"42 but the intended referent of the term remains unchanged. The contingency of our experiences of "red" does not prevent us from recognizing the functional reality of the term in referencing something by this sign, negotiating its meaning, and using it as currency in our commerce with reality.
Reality is dynamic. To describe reality in terms of contingency all the way down is to affirm the ultimacy of contingency. But to affirm the ultimacy of contingency is to affirm something noncontingent—something noncontingently descriptive of reality. And if we can have something noncontingently descriptive of reality, we are not negating contingency altogether—we are affirming it by following out the implications of our realizing its truth. I do not think this is merely an instance of rhetorical pyrotechnics. I think it makes a difference to our ability to critique certain ethical claims if we can argue in a more prescriptive way for the metaphysical and ethical implications for pragmatism. Metaphysics does not negate contingency; the heralds of contingency surely fall prey to the "self-excepting fallacy"43 when they remain blind to the conditions of recognizing it. Whitehead's metaphysics gives us a contingency that we can do something with.
We need an account of contingency that we can do something with; one which tells the tale of the universe conspiring to support its validity. While our conceptual norms are contingent, we use those norms to recognize this very contingency. Much can be made of the second half of this statement; indeed, much ought to be made of it. [End Page 52]
There is no contradiction to the idea of a metaphysics of contingency. The claim that there is a contradiction results from an inattention to the structural antitheses of existence—to the implications that can be drawn from any claim about the world, including its contingency. If contingency is radical, then we are claiming a transcendental condition of this very acknowledgment. Such contrasts are the creative tension whereby Creativity "achieves its supreme task of transforming disjoined multiplicity, with its diversities in opposition, into concrescent unity, with its diversities in contrast."44 Hegel once said that what is a contradiction in death is no contradiction in life. The "death" in which contradiction is apparent meant, for Hegel, abstract thought where concepts are treated as having static essences. And the "life" in which contradiction dissolves is just the movement of the indeterminate becoming determinate and back in reunification.
Mutatis mutandis, this is how we should read Whitehead; as expressing the pragmatist insight that our lives are wrought with ambiguities and contradictions held in a critical balance. Concepts come into view only in tension with their negation by their opposite. The recognition that concepts are instruments ought to tip us off to what must have provided the conditions of their instrumentality. The idea that language is fundamentally incapable of attuning us to reality misses the deeper implications of its instrumentality. Indeed, White-head called such philosophies, for which the notion of "mere appearance" is a fundamental principle, the "final Platonic problem."45 [End Page 53]
Robert Cummings Neville, emeritus professor of philosophy, religion, and theology at Boston University, is a long-time member and former president of (H) IARPT and a frequent contributor to AJTP. He is the author most recently of Defining Religion (SUNY, 2017).
1. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected ed., ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978), 13.
2. Nancy Frankenberry, "Contingency All The Way Down," in Thinking with Whitehead and the American Pragmatists: Experience and Reality, ed. Brian G. Henning, William T. Myers, and Joseph D. John (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015), 106.
3. Ibid., 106.
5. Nancy Frankenberry, "Enduring Questions in Philosophy of Religion: A Response to Neville and Godlove," American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 37, no. 1 (2016): 39–40.
6. Cheryl Misak, "Language and Experience for Pragmatism," European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy 6, no. 2 (2014): 29.
7. Or even the most Davidsonian option. In "The Method of Truth in Metaphysics," in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), Davidson argues, "In sharing a language, in whatever sense this is required for communication, we share a picture of the world that must, in its large features, be true. It follows that in making manifest the large features of our language, we make manifest the large features of reality. One way of pursuing metaphysics is therefore to study the general structure of our language. This is not, of course, the sole true method; there is no such" (199). He continues, "The merit of the method of truth is not that it settles such matters once and for all, or even that it settles them without further metaphysical reflection. But the method does serve to sharpen our sense of viable alternatives, and gives a comprehensive idea of the consequences of a decision" (214). As Kevin Schilbrack argues in "The Study of Religious Belief after Donald Davidson," in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 14 nos. 3/4 (2002), "[Davidson] shows how the modern (and postmodern) antipathy to metaphysics and to religious metaphysics in particular depends on a dualism that is no longer tenable" (347).
8. Frankenberry, "Enduring Questions in Philosophy of Religion," 51.
9. Frankenberry, "Contingency All the Way Down," 104; Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.
10. Frankenberry, "Contingency All the Way Down," 104; Whitehead, Process and Reality, 53.
11. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.
12. Ibid., 147.
13. Ibid., 148.
14. Ibid., 149.
15. Ibid., 14.
16. Ibid., 149.
17. Ibid., 32.
18. Ibid., 29.
19. Ibid., 32.
20. Sidney Hook, The Metaphysics of Pragmatism (Chicago: Open Court, 1927), 19.
21. Ibid., 43.
22. Ibid., 46.
23. Ibid., 6.
24. Ibid., 80.
25. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 24.
26. Ibid., 25.
27. Robert C. Neville, "Nancy Frankenberry: Philosopher of Religion, Radical Empiricist, Herald of Contingency," American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 37, no. 1 (2016): 6.
28. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 340.
29. Ibid., 192.
30. Ibid., 244.
31. Ibid., 88.
32. Ibid., 87.
33. "Order" in Whitehead's use means "societies permissive of actualities with patterned intensity, and of feeling arising from adjusted contrasts." Whitehead, Process and Reality, 244.
34. Ibid., 88.
36. Ibid., 239.
38. Ibid., 239–40.
41. This last statement means to reference Whitehead's understanding of an actual entity as the "subject" of its own immediacy of function. The self-functioning of an actual entity means contributing to its own determinateness, and thus, the subject is self-determining, but only because of the functioning of other past actual entities as the datum available to the ingression of novel character. That there is indeterminacy with respect to this self-functioning means that there is also indeterminacy with regard to the real internal constitution of an actual entity. A subject is, by nature then, indeterminate until a moment of satisfaction, culminating in one determinant feeling—that is, until the many become one, and are thereby increased by one.
42. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 22.
43. Frankenberry, "Enduring Questions in Philosophy of Religion," 36.
44. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 348.
45. Ibid., 346–47.