Latour, Whitehead, and Chaosmos

Where Latour and Whitehead most clearly converge is in their emphasis upon events, and in particular with their understanding of events as always exceeding themselves. Latour has developed this line of thinking in numerous works, but most notably in We Have Never Been Modern, and he among others (especially Isabelle Stengers) have frequently recognized the significance of Whitehead on this point. For Latour as for Whitehead (and for Davidson [see earlier posts]) there is a single ontology of events, and these events function as mediators that continually work, rework, and transform other events. Over time these events come to be stabilized as either natural events and phenomena or as subjective and cultural artifacts. The modern view Latour contests, by contrast, views events as intermediaries from the start that already embody their subjective or objective essence, an essence that will be revealed. In the first case, events are historical and anti-teleological in that they reflect the contingencies of their relationships to other events that are taken up over time though without presupposing whether such collectives (as Latour calls them) are guaranteed of success. In the second case, events are ahistorical and teleological. The essence is already there and whatever contingencies occur are accidental to the nature of the event, a nature that is predestined to be revealed at the end of the day.

We can better understand Whitehead’s position if we look at his critique of Hume. For Whitehead Hume introduces the world ‘as a secondary conjecture’ that is constituted on the basis of a multiplicity of discrete impressions and ideas. Whitehead, by contrast, argues that discrimination itself is exercised on the basis of an ‘experienced world,’ an experience that ‘starts,’ Whitehead claims, ‘with a sense of power, and proceeds to the discrimination of individualities and their qualities.’ (Modes of Thought [1968], p. 119). In other words, we do not begin with ‘the many data’ and then construct an experiential unity of the world; or, as Davidson understands it, we do not begin with a multiplicity of empirical data that is then taken up and organized by a conceptual scheme (the third dogma of empiricism). We begin, Whitehead argues, with an experiential unity and power that Whitehead characterizes as the ‘compulsion of composition,’ or the process whereby a felt unity discerns and discriminates (or prehends to use Whitehead’s term) novelties that perpetuate the process of composition. For Davidson, similarly, we begin with a general agreement that serves to make intelligible the differences and discriminations about which we subsequently disagree and argue. It is therefore not that which is discriminated that is most real – in contrast to Hume – nor is it a completed, self-sustaining composition – in contrast to the rationalists – but it is instead the compulsion of composition itself which is most real for Whitehead. Yet despite his critique of Hume, Whitehead nonetheless claims Hume is indispensable:

This conclusion that pure sense perception does not provide the data for its own interpretation was the greatest discovery embodied in Hume’s philosophy. This discovery is the reason why Hume’s Treatise will remain as the irrefutable basis for all subsequent philosophic thought. (Ibid, p. 133).

In other words, the data of sense perception do not, by themselves, provide the means whereby they become absorbed by a unifying interpretation. Although on his reading of Hume the sense data is indeed what is taken up and organized by an interpretive process (hence Hume is committed to the third dogma), for Whitehead there is no sense data or data of any kind that exists independently of being taken up by an interpretive process. Whitehead avoids the scheme-content dualism (third dogma) in much the same way Davidson does—namely, by calling for an ontological monism, in this case a monism of actual entities: ‘apart from the things that are actual, there is nothing.’ (Process and Reality, p. 53). And the actual entities that constitute actuality are to be ‘conceived,’ according to Whitehead, as an act of experience arising out of data. It is a process of ‘feeling’ the many data, so as to absorb them into the unity of one individual satisfaction.’ But this data is nothing less than other actual entities, and thus each actual entity is an event, a process, whereby it is simultaneously a subject that prehends other actual entities and ‘absorb[s] them into the unity of one individual satisfaction’ and it is in turn a unity that can be taken up within the prehensions of other actual entities, and so on—actual entities are thus both subject and superject as Whitehead puts it.

By adopting a monistic ontology of events, it is no longer a question for Whitehead of having to construct, amidst a multiplicity of already identified and identifiable entities, the necessary relation between them such as cause and effect, a subject’s belief about the world and the way the world is, etc. Rather, for Whitehead an event develops amidst a chaos of actual entities and through a process of composition and screening there is the coming to be of a stable world or cosmos. Consequently, it is the very identifiable, determinate and stable nature of the entities that are which marks for Whitehead the end of actual entities, the end of the screening process. Only as determinate facts after the end of process do entities then embody certain relationships – such as cause and effect, subjective or objective, etc. The screening process thus does not exclude or repress any determinate and identifiable entity. Deleuze and Foucault both echo Whitehead on this point, and this explains why they reject Freud’s view of the unconscious. (Difference and Repetition [1995], pp. 106-7). The screening process therefore does not function for Deleuze, and for Whitehead as Deleuze reads him, as the guard Freud discusses in the metaphor he uses to explain repression. In the metaphor there are two rooms. One room contains entities that we are conscious of. Some of these entities are the focus of our conscious attention while the rest are part of the background of our conscious awareness. The second room consists of entities that are in our unconscious. Between the two rooms is a door and a watchman who monitors who can or cannot move from the unconscious to the conscious, or what, conversely, of our conscious life gets put into the unconscious. The problem with this theory for Deleuze is that it results, at worst, in a form of ontological dualism, or at best in a continued adherence to the third dogma of empiricism. If the relationship between events and chaos is taken to be one where a chaotic realm of entities is forged into a stable cosmos, then we would again be back to the view whereby a conceptual scheme is inseparable from a screening that excludes those entities that are from the start outside all conceptual schemes – in short, we would be back to the third dogma. For Deleuze, by contrast, the unconscious is not distinct from the conscious, the chaotic is not a separate and distinct realm from cosmos. By an ‘unconscious in finite understanding,’ Deleuze means that there is ‘something that cannot be thought in finite thought…a nonself in the finite self…’ (The Fold, p. 89). In short, there are nothing but actual entities; or, as Whitehead claims, ‘apart from things that are actual [i.e., actual entities], there is nothing.’ The screening that stabilizes events is nothing less than the self-organization of actual entities themselves and reflects the fact that events, as processes and becomings, already exceed themselves and are assured of becoming other.


4 responses to “Latour, Whitehead, and Chaosmos

  • Ejypt

    So forgive me if I’m misunderstanding something, as I am not trained in philosophy nor have I read any of Whitehead’s ontological works, but to me the statement “apart from entities that are actual, there is nothing” is precisely the sort of philosophy Deleuze moves beyond with his virtual/actual schema. Deleuze says repeatedly that the virtual is just as real as the actual; reality is composed of the two, not one alone. Would the virtual, translated into Whitehead’s terms, be akin to the screening, a sort of topology of the screening? From the way it’s presented here, the two would not be identical but they do seem to be related somehow.
    Love the blog, by the way. Great topics handled with lucidity.

  • Jeffrey Bell

    Thanks for your comment. You do bring up a good point and it gets right to what is one of the key stumbling blocks to fully understanding Deleuze’s project (at least on my view), which is how to understand the virtual/actual schema. Although the ‘apart from actual entities…’ quote is from Whitehead, I do think Deleuze would agree, and agree precisely because the only determinate, identifiable entities are the actual entities. The virtual is not a determinate, distinct reality or entity. It is this assumption that leads some (I have Badiou in mind in particular) to interpret Deleuze as a dualist. The virtual, rather, are the intensive conditions that are inseparable from the extensive, actualized entities, but they are the conditions that may at the same time undermine and transform the entity into something other. Whitehead makes much the same point, as does Latour, which I was trying to lay out in the post. Glad you enjoy the blog.

  • Spinoza Upside Down | Aberrant Monism

    […] will be my primary focus. First, I agree with Whitehead’s claim, which I discuss in an earlier post, that ‘apart from the things that are actual, there is nothing.’ (Process and Reality, p. 53). […]

  • Anti Vigilante

    Woah. The Freud bit… Are D & G suggesting that instead of repression, the reason that the subconscious is unrealized is because we don’t know what those thought forms below the surface mean, much like we don’t remember sequences of phonemes in a different language because they do not form familiar words?

    I would only add this… repression can be an explanation if there is an unhealthy behavior which coincides (caused by or just a side effect) or a repeating pattern of behavior with few meaningful moments before it cycles, especially such behaviors which the individual is unable to be fully aware of even in the act.

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