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  • Explaining the Quantum of Explanation
  • David E. Conner (bio)

In The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead's Radical Empiricism, Randy Auxier and Gary Herstein have produced an exceptional study that I believe is one of the most important books about Whitehead's philosophy to have appeared in the past fifty years.1 Fifteen or twenty years ago interest in Whitehead's thought appeared to be waning. Now process philosophy has made a remarkable comeback and is also of growing interest among scholars other than philosophers and theologians. The Quantum of Explanation makes a timely contribution to this situation because it is written with an integrative perspective that is relevant to diverse fields of inquiry and because it offers clarification pertaining to several long-standing errors and points of confusion in Whitehead studies.

The book is not an introductory text. By using the word "explaining" in the title of this article, I am not claiming to have explained everything the authors have said. Herstein and Auxier refer to a remarkably wide range of Whitehead's writings in support of an exposition of "the philosophy of organism" that is a major departure from other interpretations. Most readings of Whitehead fall into one of two categories: theological approaches that focus on Whitehead's concept of God or related religious topics, and naturalistic approaches that mistrust Whitehead's alleged "Platonism," revise or discard Whitehead's doctrine of eternal objects, and frequently see little or no need for God in Whitehead's system. Auxier and Herstein advance vigorous critiques of both of these approaches.

I. Why Quantum?

The appearance of quantum in the title is not merely the clichéd use of a trendy word; the authors employ quantum in a technical sense to refer to something that is empirically indivisible—though they allow that quanta may be broken down conceptually for purposes of analysis. The quantum that Auxier and Herstein have in mind is the type of event represented by Whitehead's actual entity or actual occasion, which the authors deem to be the "quantum of explanation," because in Whitehead's philosophy the actual entity is the ultimate [End Page 82] reason for the way things are; that is, the actual event is the basic constituent of Whitehead's metaphysics.2 The authors also employ the word atom, recognizing that Whitehead identified his own philosophy as "an atomic theory of actuality" and noting that the original Greek word atomos means not "extremely small" but "irreducible" or "unable to be cut."3

Whitehead's term actual entity denotes not the substance-based atoms of Democritus but occasions of experience, and accordingly The Quantum of Explanation repeatedly references Whitehead's radical empiricism as a touchstone, noting the similarities between Whitehead's philosophy and that of "James, Dewey, Bergson, and to a great extent Cassirer, Peirce, and Royce."4 It is significant that Charles Hartshorne is not included in this list; the authors see Whitehead as a "radical realist," whereas Hartshorne's philosophy is held to be less empirical and more nearly rationalistic.5 "In Whitehead studies, it is Hartshorne's influence that leads 'naturalistic' interpreters to conclude that they must jettison the idea of God in order to render the philosophy of organism scientifically respectable. Not only is the move unnecessary, it also renders the Whiteheadian philosophy incoherent and unscientific (i.e., non-naturalistic)."6

Auxier and Herstein make a further distinction between the actual entity—a concept that serves as a tool for analysis—and events themselves, which constitute reality: "The actual entity is not a unit of change. The event is."7 Herstein and Auxier have a significant point to make: that a good deal of philosophy, including numerous interpretations and applications of Whitehead's philosophy, has evinced a tendency to lapse into model-centric thinking, blurring the boundary between the actual events and the models, images, or principles that are intended to describe or represent those events.8

This point is important enough to illustrate with a non-Whiteheadian example. I have friends who are enthusiastic about the Enneagram, a theoretical system of nine interconnected personality types.9 These friends seem to enjoy [End Page 83] describing and explaining the behavior of their...


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