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Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Whitehead's externalism

Whitehead's philosophy of organism is presented in Process and Reality as rescuing some lost elements in Descartes and Locke. In particular, elements related to the conception of perception according to which the subjective capture of the perceived item leaves its mark in the perception process. As a consequence, there is a revamping of the distinction between extension and mentality - in terms of a theory of extension and a theory of prehension respectively, or a morphology of the concrete and a genetics of its concrescence relatively independent. To be sure, mentality becomes the object of something Nietzsche once heralded as a universal psychology while extension becomes the object of a study of the concrete formed by the multiple and often mutual prehensions. It is a Cartesian division and Whitehead (Part IV, chapter 1, section V) is clear about how hard it is to consider actualities without parsing them into the publicity and the privacy of things. But the ontological bifurcation is what is to be resisted: physical and mental operations are inextricably intertwined (Part IV, chapter V, section III). The big break with the Cartesian scheme of things is the absence of ontological bifurcation - eternal objects, actual entities and prehensions are both public and private, although they appear in two aspects (eternal objects as universals and as sensorial qualities, actual entities as superjects and as subjects, prehensions as containing objective datum or agency and as containing subjective forms). The dual aspect approach can remind Spinoza, but I take it to to be closer to a monadological approach where monads are inextricably associated to their territories and no territory can subsist without a monad (extension in Leibniz is also Cartesian - no empty space).

But the biggest revamping of Locke and Descartes - or at least of the received reading of them - is the externalism of the philosophy of organism. In a sense, the distinction between DISC and ACCESS, made by Pritchard implicitly in his Epistemological Disjunctivism and explicitly in Evidentialism, Internalism, Disjunctivism (Dougherty, T. (ed.) Evidentialism and Its Discontents, Oxford UP, 2011), can be applied to Whitehead's reading of Locke's indirect perception. The perceiver has reflective access to the region of space (see Part IV, chapter 5, section II) that is perceived although there is no discrimination of whether she captures a there is in the res vera. Still, she perceives the res vera. There is room for reflective access - what is absent both in reliabilist forms of externalism and in a purely causal account of perception (somehow present in Whitehead, for efficient causation is a mode of perception) - while there is no New Evil Genios scenario (see Lehrer, K. and S. Cohen. ‘Justification, Truth, and Coherence’, Synthese, 55: 191–207, 1983) for a (veridical) perceiver and her counterpart whose brain is in a vat are not at the same justificatory status.

I find interesting that indirect perception (or perception with subjective mediation) can be thoroughly externalist. Locke - and Descartes - can be read as externalists if we buy into this distinction between ACCESS and DISC (between reflective access and discriminabilty). The distinction seems to be enlightening and makes explicit a dimension that is hidden in Bergmann's characterization of access (in Justification without awareness). Whitehead's externalism has that what is perceived moves agency even though one can have a very different and indeed completely novel take of what she perceives. In that sense, Whitehead (and, if he is right, Locke, as much as disjunctivism) advocates that one can have perceptual contact without cognitive contact.

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