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Whitehead’s Radically Temporalist Metaphysics

by George Allan

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Whitehead’s Radically Temporalist Metaphysics: Recovering the Seriousness of Time

George Allan
Publication Date: March, 2020

Alfred North Whitehead is a major figure in the development of process philosophy because he proposes a metaphysical understanding of the nature of things that emphasizes their radical temporality. I take this to mean that for anything to exist it must be contingently created by contingent creatures that are able to endure for only a finite period of time, and so must eventually perish. In his major work, Process and Reality, however, Whitehead adds to this account of things two nontemporal kinds of entity: he considers all possibilities to be eternal, and he introduces the notion of a God who is the reason why there is both stability and progressive change in the world, who is both the infinite source of novel possibilities and the everlasting repository for the finite values creatures may create.

I think these added notions render Whitehead’s metaphysics incoherent by inserting into a reality supposedly composed solely of finite entities both an infinite collection of eternal objects and a unique entity that is both infinite and everlasting. By eliminating these notions, the temporalist foundation to Whitehead’s metaphysics can be interpreted in a way that recovers a metaphysics that takes time seriously. By then turning to Whitehead’s later work, this interpretation is developed into an expanded version of the radically temporalist hypothesis, emphasizing the power of finite entities, individually and collectively, to create, sustain, and enhance in meaningful ways the dynamic world of which we are a creative part.

Detailed chapter by-chapter summaries:

  1. My aim is to explain how each of the metaphysical functions provided by the notion of God is deployed in Process and Reality, underscoring why Whitehead thinks his metaphysics needs these functions. I then raise problems with both the how and the why, arguing that the godly function discussed fails to resolve the systemic difficulty it was designed to address. I contend that these functions exacerbate those difficulties instead, rendering Whitehead’s metaphysics incoherent. Hence the aim of this chapter is negative.
  2. Contrary to what Whitehead seems to think, the Categoreal Scheme, which sketches the “generic notions inevitably presupposed in our reflective experience,” is quite able to account for novel possibilities and the conditions necessary for their actualization. I focus on the Categoreal Obligations, which I organize into three “transcendental” concepts: Aristotelian, Leibnizian, Hobbesian.
  3. The notion that a special entity, God, is required so that there might be a source for the novelties by which creatures are creative and worlds endure is redundant, and redundant on Whiteheadian grounds. I argue that an actual entity’s initial aim need not be supplied by God, that the resources for novelty in an actual entity’s concrescence are amply provided by its inherited past, as that is understood in Process and Reality.
  4. Whitehead offers an alternative metaphysical account in Harvard Lectures I that includes four notions that resonate nicely with what I have so far been arguing: the dynamic interdependence of fundamentally atomic actualities; the open-ended character of the natural order, and the need for theories about it that echo that openness; why the coming to be and perishing of things does not require an Eternal Ground for there to be temporal continuity; the notion of the “shadow of time,” which I develop into an elaboration of the argument of Chapter Three that the Past is a sufficient resource for explaining the creative advance.
  5. I begin by exploring what Whitehead in Adventures of Ideas, creatively interpreting Plato, takes to be the notions fundamental to any adequate metaphysics, focusing on Psyche and Eros. This leads me to a critique of Whitehead’s eagerness to reify—indeed, to deify—those two notions, along with offering an alternative interpretation in keeping with my earlier critiques. I then turn to a consideration of four of the five notions Whitehead says are fundamental to any civilized mode of living: Truth, the agency which by relating Appearance to Reality grounds a stabilized social order; Beauty and Art, which provide a way to foster and then exploit weaknesses in any stable system, opening pathways to possibilities not otherwise possible; Adventure, which adds a moral dimension to the quest for novel possibilities.
  6. I use this chapter to display the radically temporalist ontology of Modes of Thought, focusing on its key ideas about how existence and meaning—fact and value—are intertwined forms of finitude. They are how our understandings and our practices give rise to contingently situated achievements, to interpretive standpoints fashioned and sustained in the midst of endemic instability. I develop my interpretive understanding of Modes of Thought in four parts, which I identify by four gerunds: mattering, interpreting, rationalizing, and civilizing.
  7. The final chapter is about finalities: the ultimate meaning of the temporal process, of the endless emergence and perishing of finite things. I begin with the two notions of ultimate meaning found in Whitehead’s last two books: the notion of Peace in Adventures of Ideas, and the notion of Totality in Modes of Thought. I explicate both notions as about the sense finite things have of belonging to an ever-emerging, ever-creating, ever-perishing ultimate community composed of predecessors, contemporaries, and possible successors. I follow this with a consideration of the explicit antithesis of this view: that this ultimate community is an everlasting entity, the transformative work of an ontological agency: the consequent nature of God. I conclude by a return to Whitehead’s notion of Peace, focusing on his discussion of Tragic Beauty as a way to summarize the metaphysical hypothesis I have been developing throughout the book.

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