Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Process and Reality - Alfred North Whitehead

"Consciousness is the crown of experience, only occasionally attained, not its necessary base.p 378

Whitehead brings a theory of everything, it being cosmology after all, by offering a Philosophy of the Organism to explain  how reality is a passage at the knife edge of now. Rather than taking the substance-predicate at face value, Whitehead exposes the contradictions in the Cartesian thought and demonstrates how conceptions of interaction and atomism are not exclusive. Stunning in its breadth and ability to explain what Whitehead sees as the composition of our world Process and Reality (relatively) simply is an absolutely seminal piece of modern philosophy.

The Philosophy of the Organism looks at the manner in which objects become concretized and therefore incorporate other prior objectifications in their composition. Whitehead cleaves reality into two - interdependent - types of entities: the actual and the eternal. Actual entities, also known as occasions, are "the final real things" the world is made of, but are themselves also nexus. The manner in which different entities interact with one another is called their prehensions: without their prehensions actual entities are unrecognizable, and with an understanding of the actual entities prehensions become meaningless. Throughout this it is of paramount importance to keep in mind that actual entities are never to be conceived as unchanging subjects: the moment they are come together into a public the object has begun its perishing into a new process of becoming. Eternal objects participate in the actual by the means of ingression. Eternal objects are the mode of possibility of any concrescence, but are not realized except in the actual. Being able to truly pick apart what Whitehead means by this and the implications, even after a close reading of Process and Reality, is far from straight forward.

There is much more in this work than can be covered here. What seems of crucial importance is to include Whitehead's conception of the antithesis. Whitehead's Philosophy of the Organism cannot be separated from his conception of novelty in the universe, or, what he calls God. For the Philosophy of the Organism recognizes that all things are constantly engaged in the emergence of creation and dying, and that the emergence of new things can never fully be understood in terms of their compositional entities. That the universe is both fluid and static, that the dynamic, to meaningfully exist, must be grounded is, for Whitehead, apparent. That which is not, but all that is novel in the process of becoming, is the crux of existence.

"In the inescapable flux, there is something that abides; in the overwhelming permanence, there is an element that escapes into flux. Permanence can be snatched only out of flux; and the passing moment can find its adequate intensity only by submission to permanence." p. 478

Monday, March 5, 2012

Phaedrus - Plato

Shouldn’t one reflect about the nature of anything like this: First, is the thing about which we shall want to be experts ourselves and be capable of making others expert about something that is simple or complex [many formed]? Next, if it is simple, we should consider, shouldn’t we, what natural capacity it has for being acted upon, and by what; and if it has more forms than one, we should count these, and see in the case of each, as in the case of where it had only one, with which of them it is its nature to do what, or with which to have what done to it by what?.. And at any rate, proceeding without doing these things would seem to be just like a blind man’s progress.P. 56-57

Most likely one of Plato's later dialogues, and certainly one of his more famous, the Phaedrus is one of Plato's most direct addresses on the subject of rhetoric and, one would figure, the sophists that normally served as his foil. Running throughout, as in many of his works, is Plato's insistence that a comprehensive knowledge of a subject must first be obtained before creative thought within that realm can begin. Crucial to such an understanding is finding the pivot points, or "joints", which are of key importance to a things existence and interactions. It would seem that Plato would label the forms as those crucial points, though it is unclear how to find crucial points within the particulars of the world. We know that Plato distinguishes between that which is simple and that which is complex, though how this relates to change and particulars in the world is not directly addressed here.

This translation offers a lively and accessible reading of a dialogue that requires a bit of foreknowledge concerning Plato's other works. Rowe has provided copious notes concerning earlier references and potential vagaries in meaning. A good introduction to Plato's work and thoughts in general.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Two Cultures: and A Second Look

Originally a speech given at Cambridge, C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures went a long way towards defining the broader intellectual class' discomfort with the rise in industrial-technology and the seeming lack of moral rigor it was being subjected to. A self-described scientist, Snow laments the seemingly unbridgeable gap between his university colleagues in the sciences and the humanities. As he famously put it, it seems that scientists in Cambridge had more in common with scientists at M.I.T. than with their colleagues across the campus. For Snow this was problem that threatened to, not only undermine the pursuits of the educated, but spread to broader concerns of morality and progress in society.

Though their realms of investigation differ, Snow believed that the sciences and humanities had much to teach one another. “As we read our imaginations stretch wider than our beliefs. If we construct mental boxes to shut out what won’t fit, then we make ourselves meaner.” P. 92-3
He believed that this applied for scientists looking to broaden their thinking through the humanities as much as poets and novelists could learn about the world around them through the sciences. As a scientist and writer of fiction, Snow lived what he spoke.

Of course this critique feels strikingly modern, and but for a few asides concerning the communist manner of education it could have been written recently. We should pause to wonder what the purpose of our educational systems are, and if they are accomplishing what we hope?