The Social Self of Whitehead’s Organic Philosophy- Bryan Smith (2010)


The Social Self of Whitehead’s Organic Philosophy

II-1 | 2010
Symposia. “Individuals”

The Social Self of Whitehead’s Organic Philosophy

Olav Bryant Smith | Bibliography | Notes | References | About the author


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1Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy has commonly become known as process philosophy. Whitehead himself regarded his philosophy as the philosophy of organism. His organic philosophy is understood through various types of process that occur in the becoming of actual organic entities in relationship with one another. Whitehead’s conception of the self is one that provides an alternative foundation for psychology, helps to make sense of personal identity over time amidst a series of changing experiences, and offers a ground for understanding an ethic based on shared bonds between self and world. The mind-body problem is solved in the philosophy of organism, and a ground for understanding the lived body is provided.

2This paper begins with Whitehead’s deconstruction of the modern analysis of the self, and then discusses in turn Whitehead’s “reformed” ontology and theory of perception, the becoming of a single occasion of experience, the development of societies of occasions of experience, the creation of self-identity over time as a society displaying a selective pattern or “unity of style.” The paper concludes with a discussion of this social self, in the context of evolution, displaying an enjoyment and expression of lasting value through a series of fleeting activities of individual occasions of experience.

3Whitehead’s philosophy of organism would not have been created were it not for an analysis of the relations between the self and world. In what Whitehead termed his reformed subjectivist doctrine, he begins as Descartes did with the analysis of an act of experience, and then searches for an adequate model of the self and its experience.

4Whitehead believed that modern philosophy’s difficulties stem from a worldview that he referred to as Subjectivist Sensationism. Previous models of the self had been thrown off by the stress laid upon one, or other, of three misconceptions:

The substance-quality doctrine of actuality.
The sensationalist doctrine of perception.
The Kantian doctrine of the objective world as a construct from subjective experience. (Whitehead 1978: 156)

5Due to overconfidence in the power of ordinary language to reveal the inner workings of nature, the Greeks’ ontology of qualities inhering in underlying substances were a direct result of analyzing subject-predicate propositions where the subjects were place-holders for ascribed predicates. Subjects endured in narratives through numerous predicative changes, and thus, substances endured while experiencing only qualitative changes over time. So, on the modern theory, the self’s perception of the environing world, (the self being such an enduring substance), was sensationalist, with only such predicative descriptions being perceivable through the senses. The German idealist movement then began with Kant’s model of the self beginning from such a subjective sensationalist starting point, and expressing an objective world resulting from that experience.

The combined influence of these allied errors has been to reduce philosophy to a negligi- ble influence in the formation of contemporary modes of thought. Hume himself introduces the ominous appeal to ‘practice’ – not in criticism of his premises, but in supplement to his conclusions. Bradley, who repudiates Hume, finds the objective world in which we live, and move, and have our being ‘inconsistent if taken as real.’ Neither side conciliates philosophical conceptions of a real world with the world of daily experience. (Whitehead 1978: 156)

6Whitehead was searching for a model of the self and its experience of the world that was adequate to our experience. Hume’s phenomenal theory, as Hume himself attests, had to be set aside when he got up from his desk in order to get on practically with life. Idealists, and other postmodern approaches that accept Kant’s model of the synthesis of the self’s experience from the subjective to an objective construction, find the external world to be somewhat illusory. Whitehead did not believe we can live on the basis of either model. He believed that our theory should support our practices, or be set aside as inadequate.

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The Social Self of Whitehead’s Organic Philosophy