Tag Archives: withdrawal

Whitehead in the Clouds: Objects and Relations

Graham Harman and other proponents of object-oriented ontology (OOO) follow Whitehead in taking up the task of articulating a speculative metaphysics, which is a relatively untimely task, situated amidst multifarious post-Kantian prohibitions against metaphysics. In particular, OOO follows Whitehead’s “ontological principle,” affirming the irreducibility of actual entities. The relationship between OOO and Whitehead looks mutually beneficial. OOO benefits by getting support for its metaphysical orientation toward entities, things, i.e., “objects.” [Does it need to be reiterated that this is a general sense of object as entity, not the modern sense of object in opposition to (or participation with) subject?] Whitehead benefits by getting a boost in popularity, making Whitehead more relevant and interesting for contemporary thought. Despite this opportunity for mutual benefit, both partners aren’t totally into it. Harman refers to Whitehead regularly (including in his latest, Immaterialism), acknowledging Whitehead’s unique contributions to metaphysics. How do Whiteheadians respond? Let’s face it. It’s not the mutual admiration club. Guess what, OOO? Process philosophers just aren’t that into you. Continue reading

The Thing, Withdrawn, Asleep

Jean-Luc Nancy’s tiny book The Fall of Sleep (Fordham, 2009) is simply a pleasure to read.  When I read it, I just read it, no note-taking, no intentions.  But one passage stuck out so much that I feel compelled to make a note about it.  Here’s the passage:

The thing in itself is nothing other than the thing itself, but withdrawn from any relation with a subject of its perception or with an agent of its manipulation.  The thing, isolated from all manifestation, from all phenomenality, the sleeping thing at rest, sheltered from knowledge, techniques, and arts of all kinds, exempt from judgments and prospects.  The thing not measured, not measurable, the thing concentrated in its indeterminate and non-appearing thingness. (p. 14)

By describing the thing in itself in terms of withdrawal from relations, Nancy’s remarks resemble a key feature of Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy: that real objects are non-relational.  Nancy’s sleeping thing and Harman’s dormant objects have a lot in common.  Nancy and Harman are both Heideggerian, so these connections are not particularly surprising.  What really interests me about this passage is that it shows the similarity between Nancy and Harman while also exemplifying an important difference between them: Nancy considers withdrawal indeterminate, whereas Harman’s objects are still determinate even in their withdrawal.  For Harman, a chair in itself is still a chair, not merely a non-appearing whatever.  Furthermore, Harman is clearly a pluralist about objects, whereas Nancy’s reference to “the thing” in the singular indicates that he is more ambiguous about the singular/plural difference (as his Being Singular Plural indicates).  I’m not sure whose side I take.  They’re like my children: I love them both equally.

Objects: Between Whitehead and Heidegger

One of the exciting things happening in object-oriented philosophy is a synthesis of Whiteheadian and Heideggerian insights, namely, 1) Whitehead’s pan-experientialist concept of feeling or prehension, which deals a severe blow to human exceptionalism, and 2) Heidegger’s concept of the retreat or withdrawal (Entzug) of things.

It’s a mutually beneficial synthesis: Whitehead helps avoid the anthropocentrism of Heidegger’s philosophy, for which nonhumans are either poor in world or worldless; and Heidegger helps avoid the relationalism of Whitehead’s philosophy, for which individual entities do not harbor any actuality withdrawn from experience.

Heideggerians and Whiteheadians push back.  Heideggerians might argue that Heidegger isn’t entirely anthropocentric (maybe anthropocosmic instead), and Whiteheadians can claim that Whitehead honors the non-relational (i.e., non-experiential) dimension of actuality.  Those claims are not without their merit, as indicated by a recent post by Matt Segall in defense Whitehead’s objects (contra Graham Harman and OOO).  However, at the end of the day, it seems pretty clear to me: Heidegger’s thought is anthropocentric, and Whitehead’s is relationalist.

Regarding Whitehead, it’s important to clarify that he is indeed an object-oriented thinker.  He posits discrete individual entities (actual occasions) as the basic units of existence (see his “ontological principle”).  In this sense, Whitehead is similar to Latour, but he is unlike Bergson and Deleuze, who tend to think of individual entities as products of an underlying continuity.

Is Whitehead object-oriented?  Yes.  Does a Whiteheadian object have a non-relational dimension?  No.  Whitehead’s individuals are experiential through and through, experiencing and experienced, private and public, making actual while decisively cutting away (and negatively prehending, which is a kind of relating).

If there’s a non-relational dimension in Whitehead’s objects, it is the sundering of all relationality that takes place in the creativity of pure becoming, but such a fountain of creativity would amount to a monistic undermining of the plurality of objects.  Even aside from the pluralism/monism problem, a non-relational dimension of objects would be a dimension that is “void of subjective experience,” a “vacuous actuality” that Whitehead denounces (Process and Reality, 167).

I first read Whitehead a little more than 11 years ago (thanks, Pete Gunter!), and I liked his philosophy from the start.  Aside from the specifics of the debate regarding the new Heidegger-Whitehead synthesis, I’m just happy to see that Whitehead’s name is making its way into more and more philosophical discussions.

The Alluring Withdrawal of Things

The ready-to-hand is not grasped theoretically at all, nor is it itself the sort of thing that circumspection takes proximally as a circumspective theme.  The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in its readiness-to-hand, it must, as it were withdraw [zurückzuziehen] in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically.  That with which our everyday dealings proximally dwell is not the tools themselves [die Werkzeuge].
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 99.

To put it another way, the real tool is not present, not in theory, not in practice.  Yet, in its withdrawal or retreat (Entzug) it exhibits a trait, a pull (Zug), which opens the space of an attraction (Bezug) whereby a relationship to the thing can be forged.  The thing is never present and never becomes present, never ever, but we relate to it indirectly through an alluring pull.  Oh, to release into the attraction that pulls you into the nearness of distance…

The withdrawn trait of the tools themselves extends to all things, not just to what is conventionally included in the category of tools.  A hammer, a hydroelectric dam, a bee, a theory, a human, and a Greek Temple all share the same tension between withdrawal and presence.  This isn’t to say that Heidegger is not encumbered by anthropocentrism.  His low estimation of animal worlds (poor in world, weltarm) and stone worlds (worldless, weltlos) is weighed down with quite a lot of anthropocentric baggage, his repudiation of humanism notwithstanding.  But that’s a different topic…