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helps avoid the relationalism of Whitehead’s philosophy, for which individual entities do not harbor any actuality withdrawn from experience.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.

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8 responses to “Objects: Between Whitehead and Heidegger

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