Whitehead As Psychoanalyst?

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            Stated in the beginning of chapter III, which is entitled ‘The Order of Nature,’ Whitehead writes: “The present chapter is wholly concerned with the topic of order. For the organic doctrine the problem of order assumes primary importance” (Process and Reality, 83). Thus, we are justified in believing that this chapter deals specifically with the question of order in relationship to speculative philosophy. But if there is much in Whitehead that can be found already nascent in Heraclitus, it is because certain ‘truths’ of Whitehead love to hide; that is to say, there is another moment in the same chapter that seems to pose the ‘problem of order’ in a modified and interesting way. As Whitehead writes in Section X, “The living society may, or may not, be a higher type of organism than the food which it disintegrates. But whether or not it be for the general good, life is robbery. It is at this point that with life morals become acute. The robber requires justification” (PR, 105, my emphasis). And thus one can feel a question haunting the text of Whitehead: how does one live in the face of a process which remains indifferent to oneself, to others, and to all the actual occasions that make up the complexity and richness of the world? Moreover, is the problem posed by Nature our problem? Is our problem, still, the problem of God?

          This is a sketching out of the ways in which various thinkers have attempted to solve the problems which haunt Whitehead. By thinking alongside Isabelle Stengers and D.W. Winnicott, I hope to articulate ways in which Whitehead’s speculative philosophy harbors within itself objects for our ethical ingressions, our subjective aims which tell us that despite the indifference of life toward actual occasions there remains the richness of joy and affirmation which require us to forego traditional conceptions of self and of ethical practice. In the end, if there remains any moral thinker in Whitehead, it is a thinker who tends toward an understanding of the relationship between Life and the organism in an extra-moral way.

I. A Whiteheadian Ethic?

“Originality is the justification of life.”  — Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, p.324

           So… what are we to make of such a claim by Whitehead when he writes that “life is robbery,” and thus, “the robber requires justification”? (105). In her most recent book Thinking With Whitehead, Isabelle Stengers, takes up this question directly in her chapter entitled ‘Justifying Life?’ As she writes,

“For Whitehead, the difference made by the hypothesis of God cannot evoke a secret harmony between a general justificatory principle and particular circumstances. It cannot ask Job to trust in God’s justice, nor the woman to understand the loss of her child. Rather, it passes between despair as an eventual concrete fact […] it implies the rather strange possibility of not despairing of the world, even when it crushes you or kills you” (TWW, 316).

Stengers continues, “…the justification of life does not imply, or at least not directly…the organism, whose success had to be defined as preservation or endurance” (TWW, 317). On Whiteheads own account, and in line with the metaphysics he lays out in Process and Reality, God is that primordial entity which adheres to a single principle: the intensification of ‘formal immediacy.’ After elaborating the threefold character of God Whitehead writes,

“This is the conception of God, according to which he is considered as the outcome of creativity, as the foundation of order, and as the goad towards novelty. ‘Order’ and ‘novelty’ are but the instruments of his subjective aim which is the intensification of ‘formal immediacy’” (PR, 88).

Or again, in a more clear fashion,

“God is indifferent alike to preservation and to novelty. He cares not whether an immediate occasion be old or new, so far as concerns derivation from its ancestry. His aim for it is depth of satisfaction as an intermediate step towards the fulfillment of his own being. His tenderness is directed towards each occasion, as it arises. Thus God’s purpose in the creative advance is the evocation of intensities [formal cause]. The evocation of societies is purely subsidiary to this absolute end” (PR, 105).

It is quite clear that Whitehead’s indifferent God privileges immediacy and intensities over enduring objects and permanence. Thus, as Stengers rightly pointed out, the question of ‘justification’ does not find its proper place regarding speculative philosophy:

“…it does not pertain to speculative philosophy to simplify a difficulty that constitutes the daily bread of specialists. It is not up to it to propose to specialized undertakings, trying to describe the variety of situations where what we have to deal with “holds together,” concepts of which these undertakings could rely, or rest, in order to define the “proper way of approaching the situation”; all depend on what matters for them. The speculative aim is generic” (TWW, 320, my emphasis).

         Speculative philosophy does not pose the traditional moral question of how one ought to live their life. Rather, speculative philosophy inspired from Whitehead asks ‘what forms of life does a particular social belonging makes possible?’ ‘What may a given society become capable of?’ And, ‘what novel actual entities and eternal objects are created within the interstices of society?’ These are classically Whiteheadian questions concerning the three main values which are found throughout the text: those of Relevance, Importance, and Novelty. Moreover, they are questions which come from the encounter between Whitehead and the systematization of a process ontology. To account for change, creativity, destruction, feeling, temporality, and so on, Whitehead must construct a philosophy up to the task of dealing with the cosmological problem. On this point, Stenger’s puts it best:

“The cosmological question arises with regard to “life,” for in this case destruction is not merely a fact. The history of life is, among other things, that of an active invention of means for locating, grasping, seducing, capturing, trapping, and pursuing…To tell the story of the evolution of living beings, by contrast, is to tell the story of an increase in the creation of ever more effective modes of destruction, inventing new preys for new predators” (TWW, 313).

         Thus the cosmological question becomes the question of where life exists, how it comes in and out of being (temporality), and changes in kind. Whitehead writes, “Life lurks in the interstices of each living cell…”, or as he says elsewhere, “life is a passage from physical order to pure mental originality, and from pure mental originality to canalized  mental originality” (PR, 107-108). These interstices, where Whitehead says life lurks, are the limits by which an organism changes its form of life or physiological constitution; they are the sites of becomings, the places where life risks itself by way of Life, for the sake of novelty.

         Returning to the initial question of speculative philosophy’s relation to ethics, we approach an important nuance: We can confidently claim that speculative philosophy itself is not an ethical or political project, only if we say at the same time that speculative philosophy harbors within itself a sense (sens) of how speculative philosophy could contribute to other forms of questioning where we find our lives at stake. On Stengers’ reading, given that we are each actual occasions, caught up in processes of concrescence, each with historical specificity, subjective aims, and embedded in a society,

“Everything we know, and can do, seeks to become an environment for something possible, which is not ours, because it is nonsocial, but whose eventual “socialization” depends entirely on “us,” on the environment we constitute for it: a culture of interstices. The culture of interstices is not the privilege of personal experience. It may also be a way of understanding ritual trances, divinatory utterances, and the objects manipulated by therapists, which open a human collectivity to an outside whose intrusion suspends habitual social functioning” (TWW, 327-328, my emphasis).

The opening onto the outside, the suspense of habitual functioning, and our participation in the interstitial space of society means to participate in the process of change itself, to participate in concrescence in its creative determination. Emphasizing the importance of this ‘outside’ Stengers warns of the dangers, which await sociologists, biologists, anthropologists, and all those who wish to study the formation and endurance of societies, if they do not pay close attention to this interstitial space. As she writes,

“A living society may, of course, lend itself to descriptions in terms of stable categories…yet the sociologists whose description depends on the endurance of ‘living societies’ cannot have the ambition of achieving the success of the physicist or the chemist, for what they have to deal with raises, in the first instance, the question of the relation that the social order maintains with its own interstices” (TWW, 331).

Thus, sociologists have a different set of risks at play in contrast to the physicist when undertaking the study of human societies; that is, without paying close attention to the ways in which a human society interacts with its own possibility for becoming something other than itself, sociologists miss the important aspects and changes which constitute an important factor of ‘human society.’

Stengers concludes her chapter with a short comment on William James’ moral writing. For her, Whitehead comes closest to James’ moral philosophy in a definite respect: “For James, these philosophers must defend themselves against the temptation of trying to define a system of moral obligations that should be acceptable to all” (TWW, 334). Against the impending charge of relativism on James’ account, Stengers replies that “the position James proposes…demands an attention to the interstices. For James, this first means to accept that the question is tragic. Philosophers should be able to resist the temptation to justify the sacrifice, the exclusion of other ideals. They should accept that the victims haunt the interstices of their adherence to an ideal” (TWW, 334). This tragic element comes from none other than the concrescent process itself; its movement from indetermination to determination, its complex mental operations of decisions, in which all actual occasions present in its process take part. The tragic element of existence, for James and Whitehead, is the inevitable violence, exclusions, and negative prehensions that are integral parts of the actual world.

And perhaps this is the feeling that haunts Whiteheads texts, in those moments when he raises the issue of morality and then quickly dispenses with it; a feeling that we are left wanting for more than a mere gesture. It is this, perhaps, that Stengers rightly points toward in her conclusion: the time of moral philosophers, the temporality of their actual occasion, is a time that is suspended, seemingly out of joint. This time is such that “Everywhere the ethical philosopher must wait on facts” (TWW, 335). Philosophy waits “for those other people, who will teach them what their own categories doomed them to exclude…If they [those other people] are heard, if their words – themselves interstitial – are audible to the society to whose values they adhere, they may contribute to the event, to the socialization of the novel sensibility” (TWW, 335). It is my estimation that what is fundamentally at stake in the time of the philosopher, in this waiting for those people who will educate us on what we have come to exclude, we learn to find a comfort in inhabiting a culture of the interstices. It’s this comfort in the interstices that Winnicott articulates.

II. Whiteheadian Articulations

In a text bearing a similar title to Whitehead’s Process and Reality (1929), D. W. Winnicott argues for the importance and privileged site of the concept of ‘play’ in therapy, in his book Playing and Reality (1971):

“It is a frequent experience in clinical work to meet with persons who want help and who are searching for the self and who are trying to find themselves in the products of their creative experiences. But to help these patients we must know about creativity itself. It is as if we are looking a baby in the early stages and jumping forward to the child who takes feces or some substance with the texture of feces and tries to make something out of the substance. This kind of creativity is valid and well understood, but a separate study is needed of creativity as a feature of life and total living” (PR, 54-55).

The kind of creativity Winnicott is speaking of, as the feature of life and total living, is where one actually finds “oneself”; that is, where one feels alive:

“It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living. Contrasted with this is a relationship to external reality which is one of compliance, the world and its details being recognized but only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation…In a tantalizing way many individuals have experienced just enough of creative living to recognize that for most of their time they are living uncreatively, as if caught up in the creativity of someone else, or of a machine” (PR, 65).

While Winnicott implies a relationship between creativity and the self, with Whitehead we are given the explicit articulation of how creativity and the ‘self’ relate to one another, and the reason why anyone would even think to place Winnicott alongside Whitehead: “Creativity is the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matters of fact. It is that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively…creativity is the principle of novelty” (PR, 21). Thus, the patient who comes to the therapist in search of their self, as the one who is afforded the opportunity of play, opens up the possibility of unifying conflicting social and psychic forces. Through creativity in Winnicottian therapy one is engaged in a process of ‘making sense’ of one’s life, and to “find” their “self” in the passage between disjunctive and conjunctive diversity. Or, in Stengers’ formulation, it is the suspension of habitual practices and the opening the the ‘outside’ that provides the possibility for play and transformation. While Whitehead’s concept of actual occasion remains generic, Winnicott makes it an actuality: the self, the search for the self, is found in the process of exchange between therapist and patient, in a setting which seeks to inhabit the interstices which the everydayness of life pushes towards the margins.

Additionally, the emphasis placed on play and creativity in therapy isn’t solely in reference to the patient. The therapist, in Winnicott’s eyes, must be just as capable of being able to afford ‘play’ with their patients, to enact a suspension of the norms which plague the patient’s psyche:

“Organized nonsense is already a defense, just as organized chaos is a denial of chaos. The therapist who cannot take this communication becomes engaged in a futile attempt to find some organization in the nonsense, as a result of which the patient leaves the nonsense area because of hopelessness about communicating nonsense. An opportunity for rest has been missed because of the therapist’s need to find sense where nonsense is. The patient has been unable to rest because of a failure of the environmental provision, which undid the sense of trust. The therapist has, without knowing it, abandoned the professional role, and has done so by bending over backwards to be a clever analyst, and to see order in chaos” (PR, 56).

On this last point, Winnicott is speaking entirely of the interstices in which life lurks; the moments where organisms could pass into becoming-something-else, the moment where change can occur and a reorganization of relations could potentially take place, and how the neglect of this interstitial space of rest in therapy results in the foreclosure of the possibility of the patient reorganizing their social and psychic processes. Moreover, Winnicott’s understanding of the role of the therapist illustrates what Whitehead means when he writes, ““The greater part of morality hinges on the determination of relevance in the future. The relevant future consists of those elements in the anticipated future which are felt with effective intensity by the present subject by reason of the real potentiality for them to be derived from itself” (PR, 27). The morality inherent in psychoanalytic practice hinges on what the therapists affords the patient in terms of play, the possibility of creative apperception, and the assurance of trust which are all constitutive for the aim of the patients health. Thus, there is an important connection between Winnicottian analysis and Whitehead’s metaphysics. There is a certain freedom harbored within life itself, the freedom of participation in the ‘novel togetherness’ of concrescence; where speculative philosophy becomes a philosophical-therapeutics.


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