Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

A Functionalist Reinterpretation of Whitehead's Metaphysics

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

A Functionalist Reinterpretation of Whitehead's Metaphysics

Article excerpt

IN HIS CONTRIBUTION to a 1936 APA symposium on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, John Dewey complains that Process and Reality attempts to combine a method of philosophizing based on the mathematical sciences with one based on the natural sciences. He argues that the two methods are not compatible, however, and that the result is an unfortunate series of bifurcations between "a succinct system of independent definitions and postulates" on the one hand and, on the other, corrigible distinctions arising from "experimental observational inquiry." Whitehead's metaphysics is an incoherent mix of "morphological" and "genetic-functional" generalizations. (1)

Dewey illustrates his claim by noting that the relation of Whitehead's eternal objects to actual occasions is one of "ingression." This term "suggests an independent and ready-made subsistence of eternal objects" which then requires "the conception of God," an agency able "to act selectively in determining which eternal objects ingress in any given immediate occasion." (2) Whitehead's ontology involves two different kinds of reality, one eternal and one temporal, one a consequence of his mathematical method, one of his empirical method. These two contrasting kinds of reality then need a third to relate them. Dewey thus implies that Whitehead has the same problem of ontological incoherence as Descartes, and solves the problem in the same unsatisfactory manner--by the addition of a divine agent.

Dewey's solution, unsurprisingly, is to propose that Whitehead abandon the mathematical method, that he construe eternal objects in terms of the genetic-functional method. Were Whitehead to take this approach, "the egression of natures, characters, or universals" would be understood as resulting from "the necessity of generalization from immediate occasions that exists in order to direct their further movement and its consequences." (3) Eternal objects--that is, possibilities "which are 'eternal' in the sense of not being spatio-temporal existences"--would "emerge because of the existence of problematic situations," as "suggestions" which could then be "operatively applied to actual existences" in an attempt to resolve those problems. (4) Experimental intelligence would replace God as the agency needed to relate actual existences and eternal objects, the latter now understood to be emergent rather than timeless.

Dewey's concluding "plea" is that Whitehead embrace this "alternative direction of development of his thought." It is "in essence a plea for recognizing the infinite fertility of actual occasions in their full actuality." (5) In his response to the symposium papers, Whitehead rejects Dewey's plea, insisting instead that:

   the historic process of the world, which requires the
   genetic-functional interpretation, also requires for its
   understanding some insight into those ultimate principles of
   existence which express the necessary connections within the flux.

My aim in this essay is to respond positively to Dewey's plea, not by abandoning Whitehead's "ultimate principles of existence," but by giving them a "genetic-functional interpretation." First, I will explicate the metaphysical incoherence resulting from Whitehead's ontological identification in Process and Reality of possibilities as eternal objects, the relational features of which depend upon the work of a primordial agent. Second, I will explore the resources in Process and Reality for a functionalist understanding of possibilities, with Whitehead's categoreal obligations doing the work whitehead claimed could only be done by God. Third, I will argue that in Adventures of Ideas Whitehead embraces a functionalist approach, abandoning the aspects of Process and Reality I have been criticizing.

Whitehead ends up far closer to Dewey than Dewey recognized-and than most Whiteheadian commentators realize. Whitehead's philosophy, when transformed by means of functionalist concepts, is rescued from its debilitating incoherence. …

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