Whitehead: Purpose and Reason

Matthew Segall (who blogs over at footnotes2plato.com) has recently published a revised edition of his book Physics of the World Soul–an exploration of Alfred North Whitehead’s speculative philosophy, bringing it into dialogue with some recent science and discussing its relevance for our current era of ecological and intellectual turbulence. Reading it over, I felt Segall delivered an exciting and accessible exploration and application of Whitehead’s ideas (as well as plenty of creative thinking beyond Whitehead), hopefully getting many readers of various backgrounds eager to dive deeper into this philosophy. I don’t think there is that much in the substance of Segall’s characterization of Whitehead I disagree with–but I do think there may be possible ambiguities where I would want to draw some further clarification, which I hope to fruitfully pursue in this blog post, and thereby also, hopefully, contribute to further articulating a philosophy capable of centering organism and ecology in the manner Segall enticingly expresses thus:

Whitehead sought to disclose nature to awareness as an ecological network shaped by the social desires and individual decisions of living organisms. Living organisms cannot be explained merely in terms of their mass, extension, and velocity. They are creatures enjoying the value of their own experience, an experience initially inherited from the feelings of others. Contrary to the mechanical imaginations of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, Whitehead’s vision of the cosmos is ecological: the final real things are individual living organisms, each dependent on their relationships to others for their continued existence as themselves. (2021: 30)

Segall emphasizes at the start of the book and throughout an indirect but very important Schellingian inheritance in Whitehead, both thinkers pursuing a kind of nonreductive philosophy of nature beyond Kant’s epistemic restrictions. Segall distinguishes Schelling from the other German idealists in that he “came to accept that the rational mind could not ground itself or account for the world’s existence purely in terms of logical categories. Schelling was convinced that something deeper and darker was at play beneath the daylight consciousness of Enlightenment Reason” (2021: 2). Here I think some disambiguation is important, if we want to attribute a similar position to Whitehead. If by logical categories we mean that the categories of Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme cohere through an inferential structure that must meet the demands of logically valid form, then Whitehead does indeed attempt to give an account exclusively within the bounds of such logical form. Of course, Whitehead was no apriorist rationalist who conceived of metaphysics’ method as based on deducing the structure of reality from certain axioms–which I suspect is what Segall primarily means–but this does not detract from the essentially logical basis of his approach; it is only a rejection of our ability to intuit the initial premisses of a philosophical system with certainty and deduce all facts as necessary entailments from there.

As Whitehead put it in his foreword to Quine’s A System of Logistic: “logic prescribes the shape of metaphysical thought” (x). At the start of Process and Reality he makes clear his speculative philosophy is reliant on logic in “its ordinary meaning, including ‘logical’ consistency, or lack of contradiction, the definition of constructs in logical terms, the exemplification of general logical notions in specific instances, and the principles of inference” (PR 3). He opposed himself to those who maintained a separate kind of reasoning for speculative philosophy, repudiating the “[b]elief that logical inconsistencies can indicate anything else than some antecedent errors” (PR xiii). 

I would argue that Whitehead is in this way similar to C.S. Peirce, who followed, as Frederik Stjernfelt has put it, “the Kantian principle that any assumptions of metaphysical existence must be based upon logic” (2014: 106). There is, however, an important sense in which Whitehead may break out from this theoretical focus–and I think it is this further aspect Segall is attempting to emphasize here. I hope to articulate what I mean by Whitehead having a less theoretical focus–but this, first, involves accounting for all the ways Whitehead does follow this Kantian principle of basing our metaphysical account of reality off of our logic.

That Whitehead is at least in part basing his conception of metaphysical existence on logical concepts is evident when we examine his basic unit of reality: the actual entity. The actual entity is definable, first of all, as that which becomes a fully determinate, unified fact. The functional definition of such a fully determinate fact is that all possible propositions referable to it are either true or false. This is an important part of why an actual entity is thus also an occasion, or fully determinate event, one that does not change over time to allow contrary qualifications (as Aristotle’s substance is conceived as doing) but happens in exactly the way it does in space-time (or, more generally, within the extensive continuum). Another way of saying this is that the actual entity, once it has fully happened and thus become a part of the settled past, is that to which the laws of noncontradiction and of excluded middle fully apply. As Whitehead puts it in Science and the Modern World, an actual entity has a determinate truth-value for every possible propositional function (that is, for every eternal object, i.e. a purely potential quality, that could ingress into it):

Thus the general principle which expresses A‘s ingression in the particular actual occasion a is the indeterminateness which stands in the essence of A as to its ingression into a, and is the determinateness which stands in the essence of a as to the ingression of A into a. Thus the synthetic prehension, which is a, is the solution of the indeterminateness of A into the determinateness of a. … Every actual occasion a is the solution of all modalities into actual categorical ingressions: truth and falsehood take the place of possibility. (SMW 160)

Whitehead could be said to have what Stjernfelt, again speaking of Peirce, calls a “truth-maker realism: what makes a true proposition true is what must be taken to exist” (2014: 107). In this way the very structure of an actual entity, as the basic unit of determinate fact, is inferable from the structure of truthful propositions–and I think this is what Whitehead did. Whitehead clarifies what the determination of an actual entity consists of: “’Determination’ is analysable into ‘definiteness’ and ‘position,’ where ‘definiteness’ is the illustration of select eternal objects, and ‘position’ is relative status in a nexus of actual entities” (PR 25). This does in fact mirror the account of the proposition and its structure given in Process and Reality. A proposition is the unification of two distinct elements: a logical subject that exists in the proposition as an indication of the actuality’s (or multiple actualities’) physical existence (achieved through an “indicative feeling” defined by dual relations) and the predicate that is an eternal object, i.e. a form or quality, expressing some mode of definiteness.  So the dual structure of the proposition corresponds to the dual structure of the actual entity’s own determination–its physical position (which is its physical prehensions) and its definiteness (which is its subjective form)–and since the proposition is what is more directly intelligible (being the vehicle of knowledge), it is the dual structure of such that must be what forms the premiss from which the structure of the actual entity is inferred as the most basic, universal form of all actual facts. (Of course, the flipside to this is that the full, metaphysical account of what a proposition’s place is relative to the rest of the world–what Whitehead supplies in Process and Reality–in turn presupposes the wider metaphysical scheme, and on this later conceptual level the dual structure of the proposition is in fact explained by virtue of the dual structure of actuality.) 

But there is another side to the actual entity: its concrescence, which is its becoming a determinate fact from indeterminate potential. In a recent blog post Segall has discussed the difference, in Whitehead’s philosophy, between coordinate analysis, which models what has already become, and genetic analysis, which models the process of becoming: this is the difference between that which can be quantitatively measured as determinate fact, and that which involves the intensity of subjective immediacy of feeling and an aim in relation to some indeterminacy:

The quantitative dimension, the “extensive continuum,” is the mathematizable, computable, binary domain; it is what Tim Eastman calls the Boolean domain that can be measured in bits, rendered exhaustively in 1s and 0s. Only in this domain does it make sense to talk about 50% or half, or ratios of this kind. In the realm of intensity, the old rationality with its logical rules of non-contradiction and the excluded middle doesn’t work anymore. The intensity of concrescence is a domain that cannot be measured, cannot be digitized. It is reality-in-process, something I’ve referred to as “creality” to prevent us from imagining it at some “thing” or “state.” It is the process whereby pure potentiality moves through probability to achieve final satisfaction in a complete occasion of experience or “actual entity.”

Defining the subjective immediacy of concrescence (i.e., the process of becoming) as that to which the laws of noncontradiction and excluded middle can’t (yet) be applied is very similar to Peirce’s own functional definitions for vagueness (which then exemplifies his category of Firstness) and generality (which exemplifies his category of Thirdness): “anything is general in so far as the principle of excluded middle does not apply to it and is vague in so far as the principle of contradiction does not apply to it” (EP 2: 351). There is, however, some trickiness to what is meant by such a definition. Stjernfelt clarifies what Peirce does and does not mean here, which I will quote at length:

When claiming that the vagueness of Firstness does not follow the principle of contradiction, Peirce’s idea does not refer to the standard PC in modern propositional logic (the principle that for a proposition p, not both p and non-p hold). Thus he does not mean that propositions relating to Firstness in general can have several truth values (as would be the case when referring to the normal PC being false. Peirce’s non-standard PC focuses on properties in predicate logic – it is the claim that for all properties P, no subject has both of the properties P and non-P (not both “S is P” and “S is non-P”) – and it explicitly applies for definite subjects only. But firstnesses are possibilities and hence not such subjects. Their metaphysical status is thus in a typical Peircean move defined by [an] ontological interpretation of logical principles. They are ontologically may-bes, and a may-be does not exclude the correlated may-not-be: whether any single subject instantiates a given may-be or not can not be decided on the basis of the may-be. The fact that PC does not apply thus refers to the modal character of the entities of Firstness, and its logical expression is that “S may be P” and “S may be non-P” may both be true – Peirce’s own example is that “It may rain tomorrow” and “It may not rain tomorrow” are both true.

The generality of Thirdness, similarly, is claimed not to follow the principle of the excluded middle (or, the excluded Third). This should not be understood as referring to the modern standard PEM (that for a proposition p, either p or nonp hold). claiming that propositions referring to Thirdnesses (general necessities) admit a third truth-value such as would be the case if standard logical PEM does not apply. Peirce’s non-standard PEM is the idea that for all properties P, any subject has either the property P or the property non-P (either “S is P” or “S is non-P”), and it explicitly applies to individuals only. Claiming that PEM does not apply to Thirdnesses thus refers to the ontological status of Thirdness would-bes – they are not such subjects as required by PEM. Here, the logical expression is that both “S must be P” and “S must be non-P” may both be false (in Peirce’s example: “It must rain tomorrow” and “It must not rain tomorrow” may both be false. And even if a specific would-be holds, the general failure of PEM to apply refers to the fact that the single objects of would-bes remain undetermined as to all aspects not covered by the would-be real possibility in question – they are thus objects with lots of indeterminate aspects. (2007: 17-18)

The vagueness of Firstness, as a mere may-be, is equivalent to Whitehead’s realm of eternal objects (and appears, logically, within Peirce’s rhema or Whitehead and Russell’s propositional function), while the generality of Thirdness, as an indeterminate possibility for what subjects would-be, is equivalent to the mediation of concrescence by the subjective aim, which can take on a lawful regularity (in Whitehead’s terms, it can be part of a social order), but never in a manner of necessitarian entailment; it thus constitutes the basis for our inductive judgments and their predictive power. Both of these levels of reality only properly appear in their modal character as possibilities by virtue of the concrescence and its creativity, realizing forms beyond the settled determinacy of the past.

Some more may be said on the nature of the subjective aim. The becoming of an actual entity always involves the Thirdness mentioned above: the mediation of a representation, a general type of outcome that is desired. The actual entity, in this way, involves some intentionality–that is, the entertainment of and direction towards (or away from) potential. As Segall puts it: “The experiential achievement of some more or less complex unity of patterning is only felt as valuable to the occasion-in-question because this occasion simultaneously feels… those definite possibilities which remain abstract because unrealized in its concrescence” (2021: 45). Value-feeling is relative to the decision of the occasion in how it experiences and thus affects the world, and the intensity of that decision is relative to the intentionality of the occasion, i.e. the capacity to feel possibilities beyond what are directly observed as existent, to express and act on more than what is actual. As Whitehead put it:

If we … ask how to classify an incomplete phase [of concrescence], we find that it has the unity of a proposition. In abstraction from the creative urge by which each such phase is merely an incident in a process, this phase is merely a proposition about its component feelings and their ultimate superject. … When we try to do justice to this aspect of the phase, we must say that it is a proposition seeking truth. It is a lure to the supervention of those integrating feelings by which the mere potentiality of the proposition, with its outstanding indeterminations as to its setting amid the details of the universe, is converted into the fully determinate actuality. (PR 224)

It is this mediation by the subjective aim that secures the potential for unification of the many prehensions (or feelings) into one actual entity and then directs that unification towards an emergent novelty–i.e., directs them towards integration into one fully determinate prehension of the world, which is the satisfaction of the concrescence. It supplies the cumulative nature of reality, of an ever-new present emerging from and irreversibly distinguishing itself from the past. Even in the case of the most unoriginal inorganic nature whose subjective aim will largely reproduce the mechanical social order it exists within, it still expresses a unique mediation through the regional standpoint supplied to it by God’s coordination, so that it is an action happening, uniquely, there and then. (Such a region must be distinguished from the actual position and perspective, as it is the potentiality that the latter then actualizes.)

This subjective aim is thus the means by which Whitehead provides a teleological explanation of activity, i.e. an account capable of recognizing purposes expressing ideal ends as determinative of activity. The concrescence is end-directed and thus defined around indeterminacies it resolves into determinacies; it is at its basis an activity of anticipating and moving towards the possible future. In this way actual entities are “causa sui,” i.e. they are their own cause: “the admission into, or rejection from, reality of conceptual feeling”–that is, feelings of potentiality, felt with the subjective form appropriate to the subjective aim–”is the originative decision of the actual occasion. In this sense an actual occasion is causa sui” (PR 86). Every actual entity, in this way, has something like purposive agency–even when, in the mechanical world, it is rendered a merely conformal purpose–and thus realizes some value-feeling in exerting itself. 

The implications of this teleological explanation leads to another consideration. Segall writes that Whitehead’s concept of God “is not itself rationally explainable” (2021: 124). He cites Whitehead’s statement in Science and the Modern World that God is “the ultimate irrationality” (quoted in 2021: 126). Whitehead further writes: “For no reason can be given for just that limitation which it stands in His nature to impose. God is not concrete, but He is the ground for concrete actuality. No reason can be given for the nature of God, because that nature is the ground of rationality” (SMW 178). I do not think this, however, can be equated with the strongest position on God that Whitehead would come to have in Process and Reality. God is a concrete actuality, an actual entity that must be essentially conceived as following the categoreal scheme like any other–including the categories of explanation: “God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space. But, though there are gradations of importance, and diversities of function, yet in the principles which actuality exemplifies all are on the same level” (PR 18). The upshot of conceiving of God as following the same categories of explanation as any other actual entity is that like any other actual entity, God is also causa sui, i.e. they are their own reason for how they exist, as explicated by their subjective aim and genetically analyzable. 

Whitehead does, admittedly, still talk in a similar way about rationality and irrationality in Process and Reality, where he writes: “The evolution of history can be rationalized by the consideration of the determination of successors by antecedents. But, on the other hand, the evolution of history is incapable of rationalization because it exhibits a selected flux of participating forms. No reason, internal to history, can be assigned why that flux of forms, rather than another flux, should have been illustrated” (PR 46). He goes on to explain, however, that this is the case because such flux is self-determined (or “internally determined”) by the free creative decisions of the actual entities involved, and so “the final accumulation of all such decisions–the decision of God’s nature and the decisions of all occasions–constitutes that special element in the flux of forms in history, which is ‘given’ and incapable of rationalization beyond the fact that within it every component which is determinable is internally determined” (PR 47). This, however, is now a rationalization in an expanded, and very important, sense; after all, he is not saying the determination is entirely unaccountable–rather, it is accountable as the internal determination of the actual entity, i.e. its own decision. It is the basis for Whitehead’s recognition of final causation, purpose, as a real means of explaining activity. To say that something is explicable by the purpose of the becoming subject is to say that said subject is their own reason, that the activity is not explicable as an entailment from prior conditions but rather is explicable as a free creative act. A truly rationally inexplicable act would be one of pure chance–which Whitehead disallows in his scheme; chance events occur only derivatively by the unintended intermixture of different purposes (which, of course, does happen on massive scales throughout nature and perhaps most of all in human history: Whitehead’s teleology is only explicable of minimal individual acts and not necessarily their coherence into one end, so that the haphazard and unfortunate tendencies of history are not explained away as part of one master plan). The extended attention with which Whitehead attempted to provide, through genetic analysis, some model of how the subjective aim of the concrescing subject expresses itself in its creative decision goes to show he clearly saw this purposive activity as essentially knowable, capable of being accounted for in a rational scheme, and was attempting to get at such.

To a great extent this may be merely a semantic issue (over, for one thing, what we mean by rationalization and reasons)–but, I think, it is an important one, since it seems far more effective to focus on the expanded sense of reason/explanation Whitehead provides–one that still could work with the demands of logic and scientific evidence–rather than deny such rational explanation to his scheme. Given this, we can appreciate that Whitehead did at least supply a step towards a logically consistent account of life, that is, an account of activity defined by a “recursive form of organization that remains inscrutable without the imputation of formal and final causality” (Segall 2021: 67)–the kind of organic form Kant famously relegated knowledge of in nature to the status of being merely regulative, and which many since have attempted to understand on more ontologically genuine, constitutive grounds in order to better theorize the biological domain (if not more).

So, no reason or explanation can be given for God’s primordial nature if by that we mean prior necessary conditions that would predictively entail God’s activity–but that is not Whitehead’s ultimate understanding of reasons and explanations. Rather, Whitehead’s is an understanding geared towards organic reasons, where the parts (the prehensions and thereby the efficient causes) become through the mediation of the whole (the purpose or subjective aim), creating an emergent novelty. Of course, Whitehead does have room for efficient causation, even actualities with heavily socialized forms of order whose behavior thereby virtually take the form of necessary entailments from which we can deduce predictions (Peirce’s “effete mind”, resulting in the mechanical laws we become familiar with through physics)–but that is not the final reality. Each actual entity is, rather, an emergent novelty of feeling who unifies around its subjective aim, which is its own influence on itself by means of representationally anticipating the future–and only this emergent novelty explains the reality of process as a cumulative and irreversible vector flow.

God is defined as the actual entity who emerges purely through their mental pole, i.e. through final causation, with a subjective aim completely independent of any physical prehensions of the world and thus any efficient causation–because there is no prior world to prehend, nothing to provide reasons beyond those God supplies. Segall quotes Schelling: “[t]hat which just–that which only–exists is precisely that which crushes everything that may derive from thought, before which thought becomes silent, and before which reason itself bows down. … [F]or precisely this reason it is the beginning of all real thought–for the beginning of thought is not yet itself thought” (2021: 127). But the beginning of reality, the primordial nature of God, is for Whitehead defined around being an act of pure conceptual feeling, pure mental activity, and every actual entity is initiated by virtue of prehending an initial aim from God’s mental activity (forming the basis for their subjective aim and thus their potential unity that will then be actualized in their concrescence). As Segall puts it, “the search for the reason of the world as such must be the search for our relation to an actual fact, in this case, the Primordial Fact of God’s valuation of infinite creative potential” (ibid.)–but this is, exactly, to begin with the conceptuality of final causation, and so with what is essentially intelligible–which is thereby at the same time what is essentially appetible, i.e. capable of being represented as a possibility to strive for.

Later towards the end of the book Roland Faber is quoted saying that God and the world “cannot be united by any rational account [because it] harbors the Eros of unpredictable novelty and incommensurable diversity” (quoted in 2021: 148)–but I think this can be a misleading statement. There is, for Whitehead, no such thing as one necessitarian system from which the entire history of the universe could be deduced–exactly because, as discussed, the basic unit of reality is rather an emergent novelty that comes into being by a creative decision. There is, however, a necessity to the basic structure of reality that constitutes the grounds for a rational account. For Whitehead, “there is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality. Speculative philosophy seeks that essence” (PR 4). This is the necessity that any possibilities must exist within. Whitehead’s aim in his metaphysics, as summed up in his categoreal scheme, was exactly to be able to give a united, rational account of such essence (of course, it is only a highly fallible attempt open to endless revisions, but one where any degree of success helps us advance the coherence our interpretative schemes). God is (per Whitehead’s scheme) the primordial instantiation of this essence, and thus through their conceptual appetition the very grounds for rational unity: a functional role further exemplified by their being the originating source of each individual’s subjective aim, through the divine lure of the initial aim, and thus the unity of each fact.

So, we have seen that Whitehead’s analysis goes beyond the structures of merely settled, determinate fact to instead analyze the self-determination of the subject by mediation of their subjective aim. There is, however, also an even more fundamental starting place for logical analysis than the proposition in itself: the argument, which involves a teleological (or purposive) structure in that it aims to reach one proposition from another–that is, it moves from a premiss to a conclusion. As Peirce put it:

the idea of meaning is such as to involve some reference to a purpose. But Meaning is attributed to representamens alone, and the only kind of representamen which has a definite professed purpose is an “argument.” The professed purpose of an argument is to determine an acceptance of its conclusion, and it quite accords with general usage to call the conclusion of an argument its meaning. … It seems natural to use the word meaning to denote the intended interpretant of a symbol. (EP 2: 218)

A proposition determines how the object is to be represented but not the manner in which the interpretant will result from said representation, i.e. it leaves entirely open how it will be utilized, what will be inferred from it, to what it will be connected with. An argument, on the other hand, expresses both the representation of the object (since it contains propositions) and the manner of inference: “an argument is a symbol which separately monstrates (in any way) its purposed interpretant” (EP 2: 308). An argument, then, is the sign or representational reality that provides a structuring precisely for the kind of intentionality, the subjective immediacy and aim, discussed above. It is such argument structuring of subjective immediacy–or at least the potentiality for such–that Whitehead must be referring to when he states that “[t]he subject completes itself during the process of concrescence by a self-criticism of its own incomplete phases” (PR 244). Such criticism of subjective aim–of means and end in the course of a subjective self-constitution of will–demands some forms of inference from phase to phase, some connectivity between the propositional mediations of each phase to effectively pursue one’s aim.

It is thus through argument forms that we can come to have some understanding of the purposive activity of any subject. This has crucial importance for biological studies–i.e., those studies concerning where the mass conformity and reproduction of mechanical order seen in inorganic societies gives way to appetitive originality and thus fully apparent intentionality and so requires explanations respecting such. As Stjernfelt has put it, “propositions and their linking into arguments, are what represents aspects of reality (propositions) and give rise to inference to action (arguments)–they must be present from the very beginning of biosemiotics, albeit in a rudimentary indistinct proto-form” (2014: 141). Thus “biological processes are characterized, from the very beginning, by the argumentative arc leading from one Dicisign”–i.e., a propositional sign–“to the next, typically, from primitive perception to primitive action” (ibid. 143). He refers to the classic example of an E. coli bacterium detecting and swimming towards an artificial sweetener, interpreting it to be metabolically useful sugar:

the perceptual Dicisign of reading the active site on a carbohydrate molecule–a proto-version of the proposition “This is sugar”–is followed by the action Dicisign of swimming in that direction–to form an argument: “If sugar, swim in its direction. This is sugar. So, swim in its direction.” That this forms a very primitive argument–and not merely a cause-effect chain–can be induced from the fact that the E. coli may be fooled by artificial sweetener whose molecules possess the same molecular surface configuration as the active site in carbohydrates–but otherwise have a rather different chemistry without the easily releasable covalent binding energy of carbohydrates. (ibid. 145-146)

We can come to better understand the purposes of various social routes of organic agents through attempting to grasp the arguments that form a consistency in their actions and ends. Any purposive activity, in order to have any consistency over time and effective power to realize its aim (a key need that is, if nothing else, evolutionarily selected for), will utilize logical forms of inference with true propositions (but not necessarily only true propositions–as we will get to soon). The very formation of our personalities is in this way the activity of a social route of actual entities (i.e., our various moments of consciousness) capable of sustaining highly consistent inferences and thus pursuing intensified aims: intensity, in this way, is in fact correlated with expressions of logical rule.

But we should not necessarily limit ourselves to merely discussing purposes and organic activity in the biological domain (at least, that domain normally conceived). The actual entity, rather, is the basic unity of all reality; there is a fundamental continuity between our own experience and all of reality. If we abstract from any subjective aim in inorganic nature and remain on the level of coordinate analysis–the inspection of settled actualities apart from any reference to intentionality– we are, as Whitehead put it, left with “arbitrary laws of nature” (PR 292). Emphasis should be placed on these being arbitrary: taken as ultimate, they are not real explanations, only the assertion that there is no further explanation. The reason why there are such laws regulating physical activity is left as merely brute and inexplicable. This is exactly the kind of anti-rationalism that Peirce criticized, the stance “that this, that, or the other element of science is basic, ultimate, independent of aught else, and utterly inexplicable — not so much from any defect in our knowing as because there is nothing beneath it to know” (EP 2:49). Whitehead similarly argued against “any summary conclusion jumping from our conviction of the existence of such an order of nature to the easy assumption that there is an ultimate reality which, in some unexplained way; is to be appealed to for the removal of perplexity… We have to search whether nature does not in its very being show itself as self-explanatory” (SMW 92). As we have seen, Whitehead does find a way to affirm such a self-explanation of organic activity as its own reason. Peirce follows a similar route in his objective idealism. For Peirce the one law underlying all others is the “law of mind” (CP 6.101) by which associated activities may come together in habits and thus produce further regularities or forms of order:

physical evolution works towards ends in the same way that mental action works towards ends, and thus in one aspect of the matter it would be perfectly true to say that final causation is alone primary. Yet, on the other hand, the law of habit is a simple formal law, a law of efficient causation; so that either way of regarding the matter is equally true, although the former is more fully intelligent. (ibid.)

There is in this way exactly what Segall discusses as the expansion into a fundamentally ecological view of reality. Whitehead, like Peirce, is not a nominalist; the propositions and thus the logic that we entertain in our thoughts and desires are also present in the world around us (or, at least, some such propositions are, which our thoughts may then ideally conform to). This is also to say that the nature of reality is essentially desirous, or appetitive; it involves the pursuit of subjective aims. As Peirce once put it:

a symbol may be the cause of real individual events and things. It is easy to see that nothing but a symbol can be such a cause, since a cause is by its definition the premiss of an argument; and a symbol alone can be an argument. Every sufficiently complete symbol is a final cause of, and “influences,” real events, in precisely the same sense in which my desire to have the window open, that is, the symbol in my mind of the agreeability of it, influences the physical facts of my rising from my chair, going to the window, and opening it. Who but a Millian or a lunatic will deny that that desire influences the opening of the window? Yet the sense in which it does so is none other than that in which every sufficiently complete and true symbol influences real facts. (EP 2: 317)

A truly “sufficiently complete symbol” is an argument–since it includes in its intentional representation not only the object but also the intended interpretant. The fundamental purposiveness of reality means that it is constitutively instantiating argument-forms–in the lures constituting both mechanical law and the metabolism of living things. This was the position Peirce expressed: “the Universe as an argument is necessarily a great work of art, a great poem,—for every fine argument is a poem and a symphony,—just as every true poem is a sound argument” (EP 2: 194). There is, however, a possible tension between the essence of an argument and of a work of art–and this may be the core of Segall’s Schellingian argument against the reducibility, for Whitehead, of reality to logical categories and rational explanation.

We may turn to two definitions Peirce once gave to distinguish theory and practice:

Of the two great tasks of humanity, Theory and Practice, the former sets out from a sign of a real object with which it is acquainted, passing from this, as its matter, to successive interpretants embodying more and more fully its form, wishing ultimately to reach a direct perception of the entelechy; while the latter, setting out from a sign signifying a character of which it has an idea, passes from this, as its form, to successive interpretants realizing more and more precisely its matter, hoping ultimately to be able to make a direct effort, producing the entelechy. (EP 2: 304)

He then states that “logic very properly prefers to take that of Theory as the primary one” (EP 2: 304-305). If by this is meant that logic is itself theoretical, then I would agree–but we cannot rightly infer from that that the reality thereby known is in itself primarily theoretical. I’d rather argue, following Whitehead, that the world that such theoretical sciences come to know is one that is at its basis practical, i.e. it primarily consists of activity not concerned with knowing what is, but with effecting change according to some ideals in order to create new facts: this is exactly what is modeled in the actual entity as the emergence of a new determinate fact that expresses some creative desire. Whitehead’s own philosophy is a theoretical project (and thus prescribed by logic)–it is concerned with knowing, supplying rational explanations–but it is thereby an understanding of what is in itself practical: desire and its socializing in ecological networks of cooperative or combative purposes.

In this sense reality is not reduced to theoretical knowability. Take, for example, the basic argument structure of the perception-action cycle of the E. coli discussed above: the conclusion is not primarily the bacterium having learned something, but rather its having acted in the world to change it according to its own purpose, namely for its own metabolic cycle; its ability to have expressed theoretically true propositions was subsidiary to its practical aim.

This is the reason why Whitehead rejected the reduction of propositions to merely having a logical use for judgments of their truth or falsity; rather, they are lures for feeling, i.e. means for creative decisions beyond what is currently true or false:

The fact that propositions were first considered in connection with logic, and the moralistic preference for true propositions, have obscured the role of propositions in the actual world. Logicians only discuss the judgment of propositions. Indeed some philosophers fail to distinguish propositions from judgments; and most logicians consider propositions as merely appanages to judgments. The result is that false propositions have fared badly, thrown into the dustheap, neglected. But in the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true. The importance of truth is, that it adds to interest. (PR 259)

But such creative practice and theoretical knowing are both, as Peirce says, modes of sign use issuing forth interpretants; that is, in Whiteheadian terms, they both concern subjective aims, i.e. the mediation of activity by propositions and their inferential forms from phase to phase of the concrescence expressing a purpose: either the practical purpose of changing material according to some ideal form, or the theoretical purpose of learning the form of some material. There is in this way no dualism between our activity of knowing and the world known.

The world is ultimately not like a logical inquiry tending towards one final absolute truth–though it certainly includes such inquiry within it. Indeed, Whitehead denied “that any state of order can be so established that beyond it there can be no progress” (PR 111). The world is more like a work of art unfolding through the improvisatory cooperation of its various creative occasions, thereby making new truths emerge in unpredictable but satisfying ways. In this quintessentially Whiteheadian view, God is “the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (PR 346), so that our relationship with the divine is not necessarily at its highest in the stillness of intellectual contemplation but in our own physical contributions to the future of the world’s felt values.

Accurate inquiry–the “truth” in the old trinity of “truth, beauty, and goodness” Whitehead mentions above–finds its place in enabling increased powers of creativity and communication, and so I still do find Peirce’s grounding of semiotics in logic to be the right way forward: our desires, and thus also our social cooperation, increase in power as they increase in correct inferential structuring of true propositions, even as said inferential structuring is always at the service not of a final contemplation of static truth but of a narrative shaping of how we affect the world. 

Works Cited

Peirce, Charles Sanders. The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Electronic Edition. Edited by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and Arthur W. Banks, InteLex Corporation, 1994.
—. Essential Peirce. Vol. 2, Indiana University Press, 1998.

Quine, Willard Van Orman. A System of Logistic. Harvard University Press, 1934.

Segall, Matthew David. Physics of the World Soul: Alfred North Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology. SacraSage Press, 2021.

Stjernfelt, Frederik. Diagrammatology: an Investigation on the Borderlines of Phenomenology, Ontology, and Semiotics. Springer, 2007.
—. Natural Propositions: The Actuality of Peirce’s Doctrine of Dicisigns. Docent Press, 2014.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. Edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne, Free Press, 1985.
—. Science and the Modern World. Free Press, 1967.

1 Comment

  1. Reblogged this on Footnotes2Plato and commented:
    Great post over on the Prehended blog, partially in response to my book and recent post about Whitehead. Whitehead’s understanding of purpose in nature is enriched by being brought into fruitful comparison with Peirce’s semiotics.

    It is true that I try to distance Whitehead from at least Kantian conceptions of rationality (Whitehead replaces Kant’s “critique of pure reason” with a “critique of pure feeling”). I appreciate the critiques here as I should be more clear that Whitehead is not advocating some sort of irrationalism, but rather a form of “aesthetic logic” or “relational rationality.”

    Liked by 1 person

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