The case has often been made — by John Cobb, David Ray Griffin, and others — that Alfred North Whitehead’s process metaphysics provides an account of the universe that is, or could be, foundational to an ecological worldview. This is because it is an account that is naturalist (or realist), relational, evolutionary, and non-dualistic in its overcoming of the subject-object and mind-matter dichotomies. For what it’s worth (this part probably isn’t necessary to an ecological worldview, though it may be attractive to some of its proponents), Whitehead’s philosophy is also more or less panexperientialist or panpsychist, which means that it acknowledges mind or mental activity, defined at least in a very minimal sense, throughout the universe; and, if one cares about its theological stance (which many classical Whiteheadians do), it is more or less panentheistic, recognizing divinity as both immanent in the world (i.e., pantheistic) and transcendent of it (in that the divine acts to lure creation/creativity/evolution forward to greater novelty, complexity, and beauty).

While the relations between Whitehead, on one hand, and Deleuze, Bergson, and others I’ve written about here (including even Madhyamika Buddhism) on the other, have all been explored in various places, it’s surprising to me how few comparative studies there are of the metaphysics of Whitehead and of Charles Sanders Peirce. On the face of it, the two shared more than the other pairings. For one thing, Peirce’s Collected Papers were housed, edited, and first published at Harvard where Whitehead was a professor at the time, and Whitehead’s student Charles Hartshorne was one of the first editors and commentators on Peirce’s oeuvre. In sensibility, there is much overlap and resonance between the two: both were strongly empirically grounded philosophers, logicians and mathematicians no less, whose interest in metaphysics was first and foremost an interest in accounting for reality as we know, perceive, and live it. Both took sharp aim at Cartesian dualism, so both anticipate the critique of anthropocentrism that characterizes a lot of contemporary environmental thought. And both are, broadly speaking, philosophers of process, becoming, and evolutionary change. (On this shared processualist background, see Nicholas Rescher’s Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues, Browning and Myers’ Philosophers of Process, and David Ray Griffin’s Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Peirce, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne.)


My interest in the two, at the moment at least, concerns the ways in which both share an empirical and process-relational understanding of the universe, an understanding I’m currently applying to the experience of cinema — with Deleuze acting as something of a Parisian go-between, since he first brings Peirce into film studies in a thorough, if idiosyncratic way, as opposed to the more limited applications of Peircian sign theory that featured in earlier film studies. (Sean Cubitt, Dana Rodowick, and Laura Marks are among the film theorists who’ve been pursuing the Deleuzian-Peircian thread, but I haven’t seen anyone bring in Whitehead to that pairing to any significant extent. I keep hoping Steven Shaviro, with his Deleuzo-Whiteheadian interests, takes up Peirce. And I’ve yet to make heads or tails of Johannes Ehrat’s rather difficult Peircian account of cinema in Cinema and Semiotic.)

While I’m not qualified to speak to all the similarities and differences between the two thinkers, the difference I’m most interested in looking at — and reconciling, if possible — is Peirce’s essential (obsessive) triadism and the dualism that is at the center of Whitehead’s monism. By the latter, I mean that Whitehead’s essential entities, the things he posits as making up the basic constitution of the universe, are “actual occasions,” “acts of experience,” events whose structure is dipolar. Each such event or becoming is stretched out between a mental and a physical pole. Subjectivity and objectivity, in other words, are not categories into which things can be divided, some of which (such as humans or minds) belong to one and others to another. Rather, subject and object emerge together, relationally, within the constitution of each actual occasion, wherein a “prehension” of (or “feeling for”) what is given grows into a subjective act (a response, a “decision”) of unity, or “concrescence,” which in turn becomes a datum for a further subjectivation, and so on. For Whitehead, the process is essentially an aesthetic one, a process of feeling, that is, of relating and responding. This responding can take on the qualities of mind that we humans are familiar with (e.g., “consciousness”); but that is only one possible variant, and probably a fairly rare and extreme case, of what happens throughout the universe.

For Peirce, what is centrally constitutive of the universe is a semiosic process, a process whereby meaning is created through the triadic interaction of three mutually defining relata: a representamen, which is an object that comes to stand for something else, a semiotic object, which is the something that first object comes to stand for, and an interpretant, which is the meaning for someone at a specific time that mediates the relationship between the first two objects. Again, what constitutes a “sign” can be something as basic as the way a sequence of nucleotides is decoded in the synthesis of proteins, or something as complex (and interpretively open) as the idea I have of my self or of “democracy.” And the generation of signs is a temporal and continuous process, with one interpretant becoming a representamen or object for the next sign, and so on indefinitely.

In a sense, the main difference here appears to be that Peirce emphasizes the “standing for something” in this evental process, rendering the account triadic (because a representamen stands for an object), whereas in Whitehead that “standing for something” remains implicit. One could argue that the latter is all we need, since for the subject of an actual occasion, there is only its object. The subject does not know what there is beyond the object that the object may refer to; if it did, that “beyond” would simply become part of the object. The virtue of Peirce’s third term, then, is that it points to the relationship between the “actual occasion” and the specific things beyond it that are relevant to it. But I’m not sure about this, and it’s why I’m thinking out loud about it here.

Following Stearns and Hartshorne, Jaime Nubiola suggests another way of reconciling Whitehead and Peirce. He argues that Whitehead’s metaphysics, if not influenced by Peirce, were anticipated by him: Peirce’s firstness is analogous to Whitehead’s ‘eternal objects,’ his secondness with Whitehead’s ‘prehension,’ or “feeling of (previous) feeling, or sensing of (previous) sensing,” and his thirdness with Whitehead’s “‘symbolic reference’ or more generally, ‘mentality’.” (‘Symbolic reference,’ for Whitehead, is an integrative interplay between “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy,” or the ‘bare sight’ of what is there, and “perception in the mode of causal efficacy,” or perception taking into account memory and the past and “constituted by its feeling-tones.”) Firstness, then, is more like potentiality or Deleuzian virtuality, while secondness and thirdness are two moments of actualization. I’m not sure I follow the argument about “symbolic reference,” but I think this two-momented version of actualization could also be interpreted as a more existential, affective moment (secondness) and a more conceptual, cognitive, or regulative-patterned moment (thirdness).

On the other hand, Nubiola also cites Lowe’s claim that Peirce and Whitehead’s metaphysics present two “paths which, though touching at certain important points, were for the most part so separate that whoever thinks to make further explorations must choose the one and reject the other.” Needless to say, while the two may or may not be fully reconcilable with each other, that’s no reason why a third metaphysics couldn’t incorporate central elements of both.

James Bradley has argued that Peircian metaphysics initiates a sea-change in the long history of Western “trinitarian thinking,” which stretches from Plato and early Christianity through Plotinus, Spinoza, Hegel, and Schelling, to Heidegger (Es gibt, die Sendung, die Gabe) and Deleuze (difference, virtualities, specific differences or events). This is clearly a selective account, since each thinker could probably be categorized simultaneously as something else — a monist, a binarist, a tetradian, etc. But, if we follow Bradley’s argument here, the sea-change is that in Peirce’s hands triunity, for the first time in Western philosophy, becomes radically immanent — part of the nature of the universe. An “explanatorist” theory of actualization, according to Bradley, requires an account of origin (the activity that gives rise to difference and order), difference (the actualization of difference or individuality), and order (pattern, etc.). Peirce’s account of firstness, secondness, and thirdness does exactly that, without recourse to anything external except for the immanent nature of emergence itself. It presents an empiricist natural theology based on the notion of a creative and immanent logic of actualization.

Aside from the triadics/triunitarianism, however, it seems to me that Whitehead was doing more or less the same thing. Or am I wrong about that?

(Note: This post, as mentioned, is nothing more than “thinking out loud,” since I’m really still a neophyte when it comes to Peirce. Comments from those better versed than me will be gratefully appreciated.)

Be Sociable, Share!

Related posts:

  1. Peirce-Whitehead-Hartshorne & process-relational ontology
  2. the model (Peirce+Whitehead): films, dogs, worlds
  3. aesthetics & Peirce in the Santa Monica Mountains
  4. SR, Whitehead, etc.
  5. actual occasions
  6. DeLanda, Peirce, etc.