Genre, Relationality, and Whitehead’s Principle of
Relativity: How We Write
Much has been written in recent years about the categories of thought and language that shape the forms of our thinking. George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things comes to mind as a book that is full of evidence and illustration that the mind gains much advantage over the world with its ability to map one conceptual domain onto another. Lakoff’s arguments illustrate the power of metaphor, and the British paleo-anthropologist Steven Mithen, as a further example, has suggested that the evolution from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon is marked precisely by the ability to switch cognitive frames: thinking metaphorically may have been responsible for the Paleolithic genesis of art.
The search for the origins of art and science through speculation about the prehistory of the mind has precedent in the heroic, speculative efforts of Immanuel Kant. But unlike Kant, Lakoff and other contemporaries view such categories as “metaphors we live by,” social constructs, not absolute and categorical obligations. Certainly much of Kant’s foundationalist epistemology has been refuted or corrected in the last century, but the idea that we apprehend the world about us through conceptual schemes—social, linguistic, cultural, aesthetic, or otherwise—is so widely held nowadays that it is sometimes difficult to avoid the vicious relativism these views can sometimes fall prey to in their effort to update Kant.
Whitehead scholars view Alfred North Whitehead’s epistemology—his explanation of the way that we apprehend the world about us—to be his philosophical forte. David Ray Griffin has recently argued that Whitehead untangles issues that vexed Kant and subsequent philosophers. I do not intend to trace the convoluted paths of this “unsnarling” of the perennial mind and body problem. Whitehead’s non-foundationalist account of how we “prehend” the objective world about us does receive a kind of non-technical elucidation in the discussion of genre below. Genre—like language, art, metaphor, and other vehicles of cultural communication—is omnipresent, constantly shaping the way we perceive not only discourse but all other kinds of social action as well. From the first apprehension of “friendly smiles” to later understanding “round things,” “scary things,” “knock knock jokes,” and “signs with rules,” children quickly learn to “read” typified situations and respond appropriately and rhet-