Reason and the Other Whitehead’s Reason which adventures and Levinas’s Skepticism as Revenant

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Iimori Motoaki

Reason and the Other

Whitehead’s Reason which adventures and Levinas’s Skepticism as Revenant

Iimori Motoaki

Chuo University
Is it possible to say something about the other? Indeed philosophers say something about the other. But then it may be no longer the other. Because the other said becomes familiar to reason. So the other must continue to escape from the speech of reason endlessly. Reason would be able to relate to the other only by chasing it.

This paper is aimed at describing such a situation between Alfred North Whitehead and Emmanuel Levinas: Whitehead who thoroughly thought about the systematization by reason, defining his methodology as “speculative philosophy”; and Levinas who thoroughly thought about the other, criticizing traditional philosophy (in particular, phenomenology of Husserl and of Heidegger) for totalizing. Considering these philosophers, I will describe the relation (or rather irrelevance) between the reason and the other.

1. Concrescence

(Whitehead’s individualization)
Whitehead calls his metaphysics “philosophy of organism.” It is aimed at constructing the cosmology on the model of life. So what is meant by “life”? He says:
Life implies the absolute, individual self-enjoyment arising out of this process of appropriation. I have, in my recent writings, used the word prehension to express this process of appropriation. Also I have termed each individual act of immediate self-enjoyment an occasion of experience. (MT 150-1)
The activity which appropriates the other and enjoys it: this exactly is life. Whitehead comprehends experience on the model of such a mode of life, and calls it “actual occasion.” Through the appropriation of prehension, an actual occasion absorbs all past occasions which transcend it, and constructs itself from them.

The point is that this living process consists of the relation with the external. The datum of experience is not only the clear and distinct “sensum” such as color and sound. Such datum given to conscious experience is private and distinct, and thus does not show the relation between data nor between the experience in question and the things which transcend it.

For example, gaze at a patch of red. “How it originates, how it will vanish, whether indeed there was a past, and whether there will be a future, are not disclosed by its own nature” (AI 180). The sensum of red is distinctly and privately in the here-and-now experience, and does not show the relation with itself. So if we hold like Hume that the sole data in experience are sensa given to conscious experience, then we cannot avoid what Santayana calls the “Solipsism of the Present Moment” (S 33).

But Whitehead says that in the depth of experience there are elements different from sensa. Concretely speaking, such elements are these:

An inhibition of familiar sensa is very apt to leave us a prey to vague terrors respecting a circumambient world of causal operations. In the dark there are vague presences, doubtfully feared; in the silence, the irresistible causal efficacy of nature presses itself upon us; …in the dim consciousness of half-sleep, the presentations of sense fade away, and we are left with the vague feeling of influences from vague things around us. (PR 176)
According to philosophers who regard sensa as the sole data in experience, an inhibition of sensa given to conscious experience should leave nothing in experience. But in fact there remain vague feelings of the inflow of the things which transcend the here-and-now experience. “[T]hose elements of our experience which stand out clearly and distinctly in our consciousness are not its basic facts; they are the derivative modifications which arise in the process” (PR 162). Vague feelings of the inflow of the other are the very basic elements in experience. And vivid sensa in consciousness derive from such feelings.

Whitehead says: “Philosophers have disdained the information about the universe obtained through their visceral feelings, and have concentrated on visual feelings” (PR 121). As far as the sensum such as the visual datum is regarded as the sole datum, there remains the “Solipsism of the Present Moment.” But the visual sensum is accompanied by the feeling of the eye, for example. Thus in the depth of experience more profound than visual data, there are the bodily feelings influent into the here-and-now experience, and, moreover, the feelings of the external world. “The present moment is constituted by the influx of the other into that self-identity which is the continued life of the immediate past within the immediacy of the present” (AI 181).

It was the activity receiving the other influent into the present moment that was called “prehension” above. Innumerable past occasions flow into the present occasion, and are received by its prhensions. Synthesizing these prehensions through the process of “concrescence,” an actual occasion makes itself up into the occasion. Thus Whitehead says: “The concrescence is an individualization of the whole universe” (PR 165).

The individualization of concrescence: for the present we can say that it is the process in which the here-and-now experience constructs itself through the prehension and the appropriation of the other. This individualization is fostered by the other.

2. Enjoyment

(Levinas’s individualization)
Similarly to Whitehead, Levinas explains about individualization. In his Totality and Infinity, Part II ‘Interiority and Economy,’ he says:
Happiness is a principle of individuation, but individuation in itself is conceivable only from within, through interiority. (TI 157)
Happiness is concerned with “enjoyment” (jouissance). Happiness is to enjoy the pure quality without substance called “element,” and to be satisfied.

For example, “[w]e live through “good soup,” air, light, spectacles, work, ideas, sleep, etc.” (TI 112). The things through which we live are not the object of knowledge nor the means to an end; but we just enjoy them. The warmth of soup, the shine of light behind the clouds, the tired feeling throughout the body; we just enjoy such pure qualities.

Enjoyment is the world’s being presented to me as pure qualities. Then in the flat and uniform world, the I who enjoys it appears as the center. “Enjoyment is a withdrawal into oneself, an involution” (TI 123). The world is involved in the center of the I through my enjoyment. This involution is “the reversion, so to speak, of convexity into concavity” (TI 321-2). By it, the sphere which is not surveyable from the outside, the sphere of interiority, appears in the world. This is Levinas’s individualization.

But enjoyment is unstable, because the element is without substance. The pure element now enjoyed may disappear the next moment. Enjoyment is insecure about the future. Therefore the I passes from the unstable order of enjoyment into the stable one of “labor” (travail) and “possession.”

First, labor gives a form to the element of pure quality, and draws the things from there. Then they are possessed. “The hand both brings the elemental qualities to enjoyment, and takes and keeps them for future enjoyment” (TI 173). The I can enjoy the things taken by labor and possession anytime. Thus enjoyment acquires stability.

Levinas says that such activity of labor and possession is based on the “home” (maison, TI 168). The home is not the object of possession; but the things by which it is possible to possess. It is by the foundation of the home that the I can keep and possess the things drawn. Levinas calls the enlargement of interiority through possession based on the home “economy”, in the etymological sense: the Greek word οικνομία means the home. It is the enlargement of interiority through economy that is described in Totality and Infinity, Part II ‘Interiority and Economy,’

Such enlargement of interiority finally absorbs everything. Levinas says:
Everything is here, everything belongs to me…. The possibility of possessing, that is, of suspending the very alterity of what is only at first other, and other relative to me, is the way of the same. (TI 27)
The I enjoys the world presented to me as pure quality. The world fosters the individualization of the I. It is indeed the other for the I.

But now the I has passed from the unstable order of enjoyment into the stable one of possession based on the home. The world has become with form. In the world, there is nothing to exceed the comprehension of the I. If there was something incomprehensible, the I would not be able to possess it. But there is nothing incomprehensible. Everything in the world has form and is comprehensible. Therefore it is presented to the I as something capable of possession.

Although the I actually does not possess the stars, the first step of possession is taken as far as the I comprehends them as “stars.” The “sway” (pouvoir) of the I has already penetrated everywhere. Levinas calls such a mode of the I “imperialism of the same” (TI 28). There can be nothing outside of this empire. Everything is continuous within it, and so there is not the other. All is inevitably involved in possession or “appropriation” (TI 37) of the I. Whatever the I meets, it never escapes from its appropriation. After all, it is presented to the enjoyment of the I, and exists for it.

The individualization of enjoyment; it is indeed concerned with the world as element, with the other. But it is comprehensible and capable of possession. It is penetrated by the sway of the I, and absorbed by “imperialism of the same.” Levinas attempts to find the other beyond such individualization.

3. System and Totality

Two individualizations have been considered so far: concrescence (Whitehead) and enjoyment (Levinas). They are concerned with the other fostering them. But according to Levinas, the individualization through enjoyment absorbs the other, and so there is no longer the other. This is true of Whitehead’s individualization too.

After all, the other fostering the individualization is for the individual: and it is no longer the other, but the individual itself. The individual absorbs the difference between itself and the other fostering itself. Then such difference is eliminated. Without finding another difference, we can never speak about the other.

But the universe described by Whitehead is continuous. Everything is continuous with the individual, and there is no external for this continuum. The individual and the other are both situated in this continuum. Indeed everything is actually not appropriated by the individual; but in Whitehead’s universe where everything is continuous with the individual and there is no heterogeneous thing, all would inevitably be comprehensible to the individual and capable of being appropriated by it. After all, the continuum described by Whitehead would absorb that difference between the individual and the other which escapes from the individualization. And so there would be no longer the other.

Such a strong continuity of the universe described by Whitehead is intimately connected with his methodology. In his Process and Reality, Part I, Chapter I, Whitehead explains the methodology of the philosophy of organism, supporting “speculative philosophy.” According to him, it is the endeavor to frame the general system of ideas. The system must be “coherent” in the sense that ideas presuppose each other, and “logical” in the sense of being without contradiction. Also it must be “applicable” to experience, and “adequate” in the sense that everything is capable of being interpreted by it. Thus speculative philosophy is to absorb everything into its coherent system through the interpretation.

About the coherence of the philosophy of organism, Whitehead says:

The coherence, which the system [of the philosophy of organism] seeks to preserve, is the discovery that the process, or concrescence, of any one actual entity [syn. with “actual occasion”] involves the other actual entities among its components. In this way the obvious solidarity of the world receives its explanation(PR 7).
This passage is concerned with the “principle of relativity” (PR 22). A here-and-now occasion terminates its process of concrescence, and then gets thrown into the process of concrescence of the succeeding occasion. In other words, past occasions which terminate their process are involved in the here-and-now occasion. This is the solidarity of the universe, or the relativity described by the philosophy of organism.

If the terms in the universe broke with each other and there was no solidarity, entirely heterogeneous principles would be applied to them. Such a universe would involve heterogeneous principles, and be incoherent. Therefore, for the system to be coherent, the universe described by it needs to be continuous showing solidarity. The strong continuity of the universe described by the philosophy of organism is due to the coherence required by its methodology.

Thus in the philosophy of organism, strong continuity derived from the coherence of system absorbs the difference between the individual and the other. And furthermore, everything being defined as actual entity, such difference is absorbed in advance. About actual entity, Whitehead says:
‘Actual entities’―also termed ‘actual occasions’―are the final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real. They differ among themselves…. But, though there are gradations of importance, and diversities of function, yet in the principles which actuality exemplifies all are on the same level. The final facts are, all alike, actual entities…. (PR18)
In the philosophy of organism, everything is on the same level in the sense of being an actual entity which embodies the most general activity of “creativity.” In other words, the difference between an individual and the other is absorbed into the general activity of creativity in advance, the philosophy of organism making both them come on the scene as “actual entities”. Thus in the system everything is “actual entity” on the same level: this is the “ontological principle.”

In the philosophy of organism, the difference between the individual and the other is absorbed by two principles: the principle of relativity and the ontological principle. The ontological principle defines all alike as actual entities, and the principle of relativity secures them solidarity. Thus all are situated in the continuous and general system without the external.

Whitehead says: “The task of philosophy is to recover the totality obscured by the selection” (PR 15). In conscious experience, the private elements of sensa are emphasized, and so the fact that all in the universe are concerned with the individualization is obscured. It is the aim of his philosophy to situate all in the general system and to recover the totality.

But such an attitude is just a problem to Levinas. About the totality, he says:

If this bond between me and the other could be entirely apprehended from the outside it would suppress, under the gaze that encompassed it, the very multiplicity bound with this bond. The individuals would appear as participants in the totality: the Other would amount to a second copy of the I – both included in the same concept. (TI 126)
Surveyed from the outside and situated in the totality founded on the common plane of being, the difference between the I and the other is absorbed. Then all alike are beings, and there is no finding the other anywhere.

Also as the synonym with totality, Levinas says about system:

Reason consists in ensuring the coexistence of these terms, the coherence of the one and the other despite their difference, in the unity of a theme; it ensures the agreement of the different terms without breaking up the present in which the theme is held. This coexistence or accord between different terms in the unity of a theme is called a system…. (AA 256-7)
Systematization by reason absorbs the differences of the terms into the unity of things said. Such terms become homogeneous in the sense of their coexistence in the discourse. The difference itself with the other is inevitably “exception” (AA 18) to the system or totality. Levinas says so.

But can his own saying stand up? Doesn’t an exception said by him become an example of any system? After all, isn’t the difference with the other left absorbed?

4. Revenant and Adventure

(Beyond Individualization and System)
To summarize: the other fostering the individualization of the I is for it; and it becomes the I itself, appropriated by the I actually. So it is already not the other. And furthermore, even a thing escaping from the appropriation of the I is not the other, if it is capable of the same systematic explanation together with the I. To begin with, in virtue of the continuous foundation described by the systematic and totalizing explanation, the I can actually appropriate the other situated in such a systematic world.

Thus the other itself never becomes the I through its appropriation, nor “us” together with the I through the totalizing explanation. According to Levinas, the bond with such an other becomes an exception to the system inevitably.

But can he say so? Doesn’t it become an example of another system, said by him? This is the question presented in the last section.

Levinas calls the time of the system which philosophy describes in a panoramic fashion, “synchrony.” All are recovered there through a recollection or representation, as things which were once present, or as past presents. Surveyed by philosophy, terms in the system become contemporaries for its eyes, and get to share a common (syn-) time (-chrony). This is synchrony.

That difference with the other which is an exception to the system resists synchrony. Levinas calls such a mode of time “diachrony.” The I is called by the unique “you”; so it responds to you, and says something to you. This “Saying” (Dire), which is the difference with the other, is older than anything in the system, and precedes even the origin situated there. So it is “past more ancient than every representable origin” (AA 23), and “pre-original and anarchic past” (AA 23). Before the I and the other become “us ” in the system, and before the other becomes the I through the appropriation, the I has said to the other in the “past which was never present” (AA 45). The difference between the I and the other has a distant (dia-) mode of time (-chrony) from the surveying eyes. This is diachrony.

Philosophy synchronizes every difference, situates it on the same level, and absorbs it into the systematic “Said” (Dit). Against such philosophy, Levinas parallels it with “skepticism” to find the diachronic difference incapable of synchronizing.

Skepticism objects against the systematic truth of philosophy. And it says that there is the Saying which is the difference between the I and the other, the exception to the system. But philosophy can always refute it: As soon as skepticism says that there is the Saying, it becomes the Said, doesn’t it? An exception becomes an example, doesn’t it? Refuting skepticism like this, philosophy can recover even a thing which cannot be recovered.

And so, after all, does it follow that philosophy sweeps to victory? It would seem that the difference with the other was glimpsed; but is it absorbed into the system? Levinas says no.

Philosophy is not separable from skepticism, which follows it like a shadow it drives off by refuting it again at once on its footsteps…. Skepticism is refutable, but also the revenant. (AA 260-1)
As soon as philosophy refutes and buries skepticism, it comes back again like a revenant. Whenever skepticism is refuted, it comes back. As soon as philosophy refutes skepticism and absorbs everything into its own system, the skeptical thinking that there may be that difference between the I and the other which is incapable of systematization comes back again. Thus haunted by the revenant of skepticism, philosophy has changed from the reason satisfied to totalize and systematize into “pre-original reason” (AA 259).

Levinas uses the expression “difference with respect to the other as non-indifference” (AA 97). It means the impossibility of indifference to difference with the other. It is just the mode of philosophy which has changed into pre-original reason. Such reason is unable to show indifference toward difference with the other.

Now in Levinas, haunted by the revenant of skepticism, philosophy gets to turn toward that difference with the other which escapes from the system. Whitehead who aims to systematize, and Levinas who remains sensitive to the difference with the other beyond the system; does it follow that there is merely such a simple comparison?

No. In the first place, the speculative philosophy as Whitehead’s methodology is the ‘endeavor’ to frame the general system of ideas. In other words, it is the endeavor which never completes, and all is not absorbed into his system. He says: “In its turn every philosophy will suffer a deposition” (PR 7). Every system of philosophy will be included in the more general system and deposed by it. Whitehead’s system will be inevitably involved in such a movement too. It is for this reason that process and reality is subtitled An Essay in Cosmology. Speculative philosophy can approach the general system only by an asymptotical form (PR 4), and it is always ‘an essay.’

Whitehead says:
Rationalism never shakes off its status of an experimental adventure. The combined influences of mathematics and religion, which have so greatly contributed to the rise of philosophy, have also had the unfortunate effect of yoking it with static dogmatism. Rationalism is an adventure in the clarification of thought, progressive and never final. (PR 9)
Speculative philosophy is not satisfied by establishing the principle as a self-evident presupposition and by framing the system from there deductively like mathematics. Otherwise, it would become dogmatism. But speculative philosophy is the movement to find more general principles and to frame new systems. In this sense, it is an adventure. An adventure which is not settled in a deductive system, but seeks for a more general system, facing the thing escaping from the systematization: this is just the reason which speculative philosophy retains, or “speculative Reason” (FR 38). It is “the flight of an aeroplane” (PR 5) flying higher to find wider generality, and also “a voyage” (PR 10) across the horizon to such generality.

Such adventure of speculative reason never ends. It aims at ‘framing’ the system. But as long as it is an adventure, it is never settled in any system and continues to face the other escaping from such a system. It is here that we can find the difference with the other which is unlike from any difference within the system described by Whitehead.

Thus we have reached reason facing the other escaping from the system: pre-original reason haunted by the revenant (Levinas), and the speculative reason which adventures (Whitehead). Both revenant and adventure are concerned with a Latin verb ‘venire,’ or coming. It is the revenant which comes (-venant) back again (re-) to the systematizing philosophy. And adventure means that the incomprehensible danger comes (-venture) to (ad-) the safe place of dogmatic system. There may be the difference with the other beyond individualization and system. Both the pre-original reason and the speculative reason continue to face such a possibility.


Alfred North Whitehead:

AI Adventures of Ideas, New York: Free Press, 1967.

FR The Function of Reason, Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.

MT Modes of thought, New York: Free Press, 1968.

PR Process and Reality, New York: Free Press, 1978.

S Symbolism, New York: Fordham University Press, 1985.

Emmanuel Levinas:

AA Autrement qu'être ou Au-delà de l'essence, Paris: LGF - Livre de Poche, 1990.

TI Totalité et infini: essai sur l'extériorité, Paris: LGF - Livre de Poche, 1990.

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