Whitehead as Existentialist

I recently stumbled upon this 2007 Philosophy Now article by Colin Wilson, “Whitehead as Existentialist,” thanks to a retweet from Matt Segall—a Whitehead expert and the brilliant blogger (and soon-to-be PhD!) behind Footnotes to Plato. There’s never been any secure border separating who is in and out of existentialism, so why not? If someone wants to include Alfred North Whitehead, it’s fine with me. In our time of radical uncertainty and uncanniness, existentialist ways of thinking and being are perhaps more relevant than ever, so I don’t see any reason to close the door on Whitehead’s participation in any movement related to existentialism. In some sense, all you need to do to be an existentialist is exist, so including Whitehead seems pretty easy. Right? Not really. Although I appreciate Whiteheadian alliances and solidarities, it is more accurate to say that Whitehead is not an existentialist. Whitehead is in fact not an existentialist, not a representative, exemplar, or example of existentialism.

It would be a misunderstanding of Whitehead as well as a misunderstanding of the specificity of the movement or school of thought gravitating around the term “existentialism” to describe Whitehead as existentialist. Existentialism refers, however loosely, to an assortment of writers in the 19th and 20th centuries, writers with a provocative sense of style, a freestyle that performs a relentless adherence to the exigencies of actual existence. It is not a style as opposed to substance. This style is a stance, thinking outside the box of easy bake distinctions between style and substance. It is not just philosophy as a matter of life and death, it is life and death as a way of philosophy that leaves philosophy behind… the task of thinking after the end of philosophy.

Whitehead is not an existentialist. But why does this “Whitehead as Existentialist” essay suggest that he is? The essay is by Colin Wilson, who was not academically trained. His ideas never achieved compelling articulation. He’s really more of a Romantic than an existentialist, and his writings are composed more of true crime and paranormal novels than existentialist fiction or nonfiction. Oddly, at the bottom of this essay, the only biographical remark is this: “Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider (1956) made him the most famous English existentialist. He has published copiously and widely ever since.” Sure, The Outsider is a book on existentialism, which garnered some popularity in its time, but calling Wilson the most famous English existentialist seems inappropriate. Even if we restrict “English” to English-born, I would think Shakespeare… In any case, the appellation of “most famous English existentialist” is hilariously off the mark. What existentialist has ever tried to claim the status of “most famous”? I hope this was an editorial oversight not attributable to Wilson himself (giving him the benefit of the doubt).

Wilson describes Whitehead as an existentialist on grossly inaccurate grounds. There are a few problems that come to mind immediately. First, he thinks that Whitehead’s concept of meaning makes him an existentialist insofar as it is comparable to some existentialist concepts of meaning — meaning is created through complex interactions and dynamic engagements not through unchanging laws that force us to conform to the norm.

Second, he puts “existential” in apposition to “practical,” which completely misunderstands the challenge that existentialism put not only to theory but also to practice and the pragmatic. There is nothing practical about Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical. Whitehead’s proximity to pragmatism should not be confused with a proximity to existentialism. Dewey and Peirce are likewise not existentialists.  Neither is Bertrand Russell, in case anybody is wondering. By Wilson’s account, pragmatism, radical empiricism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, and process philosophy are all existentialist. That’s a heavily diluted sense of existentialism.

Third, Wilson says that Whitehead synthesized Kierkegaard and Hegel. Even if that were true (and Whitehead’s lack of pseudonymous writings is one indication that it is not true), that would not make Whitehead an existentialist. Synthesizing is a will to system. It is not what existentialists do; quite the contrary, it is exactly what they call into question. To incorporate Kierkegaard into a synthetic system is to fail to understand and affirm the uniqueness of Kierkegaard’s thought, for which synthetic systems are shipwrecked before they even set sail. Wilson was doing very intellectually lazy comparative philosophical work. Embarrassingly optimistic, seeing everywhere only federative and harmonious differences (as Deleuze says of the beautiful soul).

Maybe I’m missing something. I hope I am. Did Whitehead write some novels or plays that I don’t know about? Does he have pseudonymous works? Did he elevate himself in jubilant acrobatics of self-celebration, telling us why he is so clever and so wise, and why he writes such good books? Did he ever give a book a boring title and say that it is because we live in an era in which all titles have lost their entitlement to meaning? Did he get existential bouts of gut-wrenching anxiety, Sartrean nausea? Wilson makes the point that Whitehead’s concept of presentational immediacy approximates Sartre’s nausea. I feel like I shouldn’t even dignify such a ridiculous claim with a serious response, but considering that a lot of the people reading Whitehead aren’t reading Sartre, and vice versa, it might be helpful to clarify this point. Nausea is not presentational immediacy. To put it phenomenologically, it is not about being trapped in presentational givenness. It is more about the superfluity of existence disclosed in the ecstatic openness of human being as being-in-the-world.

Whitehead as existentialist? No. Whitehead is not an existentialist. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I imagine that process philosophers would be happy that Whitehead is a relatively well-adjusted human being and not a sacrificial shipwreck or a cautionary tale. Many of the people labeled existentialist disavow the label, so I’m really not sure why a Whiteheadian would want it anyway. In any case, whoever wants it can have it, whether it’s a misnomer or not. If you want to exist, I’ll exist with you.

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