Monday, June 12, 2017

Radical Empiricists Against the Bifurcation of Nature

Over at PhilPercs, J. Edward Hackett is documenting his reading of Whitehead's Process and Reality for the first time. Hackett is a Jamesian scholar, so a lot has to do on the overlap between Whiteheadian process philosophy, and Jamesian pragmatism and radical empiricism. My own coming into studying James is a little idiosyncratic, especially for someone from the States. I started with French pluralists like Deleuze, and from there read Stengers, from Stengers I read Latour. Because of both Stengers and Latour I started reading Whitehead, and also started reading James. So I started seriously trying to read Whitehead and James at the same time. Usually the parts of Whitehead I understand, I understand because of James or Stengers. But sometimes I understand it backwards, and, one of the ways I most seriously understand James' project of radical empiricism is because of Whitehead's critique of the bifurcation of nature.

Whitehead's traditional statement of the problem of the bifurcation of nature goes like this:
For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. [...]  This means a refusal to countenance any theory of psychic additions to the object known in perception. For example, what is given in perception is the green grass. This is an object which we know as an ingredient in nature. The theory of psychic additions would treat the greenness as a psychic addition furnished by the perceiving mind, and would leave to nature merely the molecules and the radiant energy which influence the mind towards that perception. My argument is that this dragging in of the mind as making additions of its own to the thing posited for knowledge by sense-awareness is merely a way of shirking the problem of natural philosophy. That problem is to discuss the relations inter se of things known, abstracted from the bare fact that they are known. Natural philosophy should never ask, what is in the mind and what is in nature. To do so is a confession that it has failed to express relations between things perceptively known, namely to express those natural relations whose expression is natural philosophy. [...] What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream (The Concept of Nature, Ch. 2).

So what is this? It's Whitehead returning to a classic problem in empiricism. If empiricism means that experience is suppose to track reality, what do we do with the fact that sometimes there are many, or different, experiences? Locke famously tries to solve this problem by dividing things up into primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are things that inhere within the object itself, and secondary qualities are powers of the object to produce ideas (say, heat from a fire) into our minds. (For a more detailed account of the two forums of qualities, check out this article from Robert A. Wilson). Berkeley and Kant famously disagree in different ways, with Berkeley taking up the idealist position. However, Kant puts in the Prolegomena, "That I, however, even beyond these, include (for weighty reasons) also among mere appearances the remaining qualities of bodies, which are called primarias: extension, place, and more generally space along with everything that depends on it (impenetrability or materiality, shape, etc.), is something against which not the least ground of uncertainty can be raised"(40). To some degree or another, everything for Kant and Berkeley is secondary qualities. As we can see, what is at stake in the division of primary qualities and secondary qualities has become issues of objectivity and subjectivity. William James' radical empiricism ends up answering this problem in a different way.

So famously James contends that, "to be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as 'real' as anything else in the system" (ERE 42, emphasis in the original). The move, to accord to relations as much reality as any other part of the system, undermines the classical subject and object dichotomy. James again, "The instant field of the present is at all times what I call the 'pure' experience. It is only
virtually or potentially either object or subject as yet. For the time being, it is plain,
unqualified actuality, or existence, a simple that" (ERE 23). Subject and object are not pre-given states, rather they emerge only in the particularities of relations, and are constantly in process and revisable. There relationship is merely pragmatic, rather than metaphysically predetermined. But again, relations are as real anything else, and all of this in service of undermining a a kind of dualism. As James explains, "in opposition to this dualistic philosophy, I tried, in [the first essay] to show that thoughts and things are absolutely homogeneous as to their material, and that their opposition is only one of relation and of function. There is no thought-stuff different from thing-stuff, I said; but the same identical piece of 'pure experience'" (ERE 137-138). Everything that can be experienced, for James, is primary qualities. We can now return to Whitehead, and see how the bifurcation of nature is trying to do the same work of radical empiricism. What Whitehead is concerned with is the tendency of those to who claim to be doing natural philosophy to reaffirm the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. This is why we must resist any theory that depends upon psychic additions to the experience of nature. That is, we must reject the idea that thought-stuff is different from thing-stuff.  The implication of all of this, as James would say elsewhere and about other things, is "no mere speculative conundrum."
To quote (at length) from Brian Massumi:
The logic of coexistence is different from the logic of separation. The logic of belonging is different from the logic of being a part. This means that to get the whole picture (including the real, suspended ways it doesn't appear), you have to operate with both logics simultaneously: the conjunctive and the disjunctive. "Radical empiricism is fair to both the unity and the disconnection" James 1996a, 47). It translates metaphysical issues of truth and illusion, subject-object correspondence, into issues of continuity and discontinuity. [...] Things' only a priori function is of becoming. Approaching things this way saves you fussing over the cognitive status of your experience. Disbelieving, are you? Feeling a tad illusionary? Don't worry. Everything is as real as its next-effect. Just concentrate on the break and relation that will make a next-effect really felt. (Semblance and Event, 36, emphasis in the original). 
The realness of relations and the constant flux of pure experience is the answer to where novelty and creation come from. It puts the world in process, and as such means the world is constantly becoming. Such a philosophy will never give us reassurances that the world is saved, but it also gives us hope that the world is not damned, either.