Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Whitehead: on the limits of language and the infinite necessities of philosophical discussion (from Process and Reality)

For A.N. Whitehead, the main characteristic of verbal language is its inadequacy for the discussion of metaphysical generalities, and therefore for philosophical discussion. Since every entity, in order to be adequately discussed, requires its insertion into a systematic, or a general, universe, context or environment, the practical description of the entity must therefore always be accompanied by a discussion of its metaphysical 'universalisation', or insertion into a universal whole. The description of every single fact is coupled with a metaphysical intepretation, which identifies the single fact as an element of a whole world of relations and of unexpressed potentialities. Allowing a presentation of these generalities (or potentialities), philosophy provides thus a justification for the particular intepretation of a fact, i.e. for its particular insertion into a particular set of relations.

Recognising that every specific fact, or entity, belongs to a more general world, philosophy is considered by Whitehead as a self-correction of consciousness limiting its own excess of subjectivity, i.e. its own limited perspective or point of view on isolated facts.
Each actual occasion of experience contributes to its own origin a series of new, additional elements, in this way accentuating its own individual character and its own distinction from all other occasions. Coinciding with the selective character of the individual occasion, consciousness appears as an obscuration of the totality of the external world, and of its continuity with every single individual. Every occasion operates a selection of some particular purposes to be extracted from the totality of a whole world of potentials, or potential relations. Philosophy recovers this totality, in other words taking into account what remains as a non-conscious part in the experience of the actual occasion, its own being always in relation with the totality of the external world.

The only missing link between the two sides, between the metaphysical presentation of a context of relations, and the description of a particular example, is a pragmatic link. In other words, in order to avoid a mere juxtaposition of general discussion (which only keeps philosophy into a transcendental realm) and particular description (replacing philosophy with scientific analysis), a pragmatic connection has to be made between discussion and life, including into the analysis the political consideration of all the power relations embedded in every single object or fact, and the way in which every new object or fact can (or cannot) make a difference, for example by contributing (or not) new modes to consider and make art.