Friday, December 31, 2004

Whitehead, Abstruseness and Emotion

One of the barriers to the wider appreciation of the philosophy of Whitehead has been the denseness, difficulty and near impenetrability of some of his writings. Secondary commentaries on Whitehead are also often weighed down with technical, obscure and arcane terminology and argumentation.

In my view, Whitehead’s cosmology can be usefully understood as a characterisation of the world as an ocean of interplaying emotions. The best method of comprehending this may often be with an aesthetic frame of mind, rather than with the logician’s scalpel.

Here are some quotes from Whitehead on emotion and feeling:

“..the philosophy of organism attributes ‘feeling’ throughout the actual world. It bases this doctrine upon the directly observed fact that ‘feeling’ survives as a known element constitutive of the ‘formal’ existence of such actual entities as we can best observe.’ (Process and Reality, 1978 ed,177)

“…the emotional appetitive elements in our conscious experience are those which most closely resemble the basic elements of all physical experience.” (PR, 163)

“The primitive form of physical experience is emotional- blind emotion- received as felt elsewhere in another occasion and conformally appropriated as a subjective passion. In the language appropriate to the higher stages of experience, the primitive element is sympathy, that is feeling the feeling in another and feeling conformally with another.” (PR, 162)

“A simple physical feeling is an act of causation…
But it is equally true to say that a simple physical feeling is the most primitive type of an act of perception, devoid of consciousness……
Thus a simple physical feeling is one feeling which feels another feeling.” (PR, 236 )

“Simple physical feelings embody the reproductive character of nature….Physical science is the science investigating spatio-temporal an quantitative characteristics of simple physical feelings. The actual entities of the actual world are bound together in a nexus of these feelings.” (PR, 238)

“Locke assumes that the utmost primitiveness is to be found in sense-perception…..The more primitive types of experience are concerned with sense-reception, and not with sense-perception….In sense-reception the sensa are the definiteness of emotion: they are emotional forms transmitted from occasion to occasion” (PR, 113)

“The simplest grade of actual occasions must be conceived as experiencing a few sensa, with a minimum of patterned contrast. The sensa are then experienced emotionally, and constitute the specific feelings whose intensities sum up into the unity of satisfaction.” (PR, 115)

“The experience [of the simplest grade of actual entity] has a vector character, a common measure of intensity, and specific forms of feelings conveying that intensity. If we substitute the term ‘energy’ for the concept of a quantitative emotional intensity, and the term ‘form of energy’ for the concept of specific form of feeling,‘ and remember that in physics ‘vector’ means definite transmission from elsewhere, we see that this metaphysical description of the simplest elements in the constitution of actual entities agrees absolutely with the general principles according to which the notions of modern physics are framed.” (PR,116 )

“The direct perception whereby the datum in the immediate subject is inherited from the past can thus, under an abstraction, be conceived as the transference of throbs of emotional energy, clothed in the specific forms provided by sensa.” (PR, 116)

“Hume and Locke…assume that emotional feelings are necessarily derivative from sensations…The converse doctrine is nearer the truth: the more primitive mode of objectification is via emotional tone, and only in exceptional organisms does objectification, via sensation, supervene with any effectiveness.” (PR, 141)

“Experience has been explained in a thoroughly topsy-turvy fashion, the wrong end first. In particular, emotional and purposeful experience have been made to follow upon Hume’s impressions of sensation.” (PR, 162)

“Thus the primitive experience is emotional feeling…In this vector transmission of primitive feeling the primitive provision of width for contrast is secured by pulses of emotion….In physics, such transmission can be conceived as corpuscular or undulatory, according to the special importance of particular features in the instance considered.” (PR, 163)

“The savouring of the complexity of the universe can enter into satisfaction only through the dimension of width. The emotional depths at the low levels have their limits: the function of width is to deepen the ocean of feeling, and to remove the diminutions of depth produced by the interference of diverse emotions uncoordinated at a higher level. In the place of the Hegelian hierarchy of categories of thought, the philosophy of organism finds a hierarchy of categories of feeling:” (PR, 166)

“ An actual entiy is a process in the course of which many operations with incomplete subjective unity terminate in a completed unity of operation, termed the ‘satisfaction’. The ‘satisfaction’ is the contentment of the creative urge by the fulfilment of its categorical demands” (PR, 219)

“… a feeling appropriates elements of the universe, which in themselves are other than the subject; and absorbs these elements into the real internal constitution of its subject by synthesizing them in the unity of an emotional pattern expressive of its own subjectivity.” (PR, 275)

“ The separations of perceptual fact from emotional fact ; and of causal fact from emotional fact, and from perceptual fact; and of perceptual fact, emotional fact, and causal fact, from purposive fact; have constituted a complex of bifurcations, fatal to a satisfactory cosmology.” (PR, 290)

“In our experience, as in distinct analysis, physical feelings are always derived from some antecedent experient….In bodily transmission from occasion to occasion of a high-grade animal body, there is a gradual modification of [the] functions of sensa. In their most primitive functioning for the initial occasions within the animal body, they are qualifications of emotion- types of energy, in the language of physics; in their final functioning for the high-grade experient occasion at the end of the route, they are qualities ‘inherent’ in a presented, contemporary nexus.” (PR, 315)

“The teleology of the Universe is directed to the production of Beauty.” (Adventures of Ideas)

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Steve said...

I enjoyed this post, Justin. Thanks. I think feelings are the markers of the more primordial forms of subjective experience from our evolutionary past. Panexperientialism should be easier for people to get comfortable with if they understand that the "pan" doesn't relate to the more highly developed and complicated aspects of our human consciousness.

Anonymous said...

I agree Steve. The fact that some assume that panexperientialism must imply that sticks and stones think is a major barrier to it being more widely considered, as well as the related issue of distinguishing true individuals from aggregates.

David E. Roy, Ph.D. said...

Justin, hi, it's been 12 years since your post. I happened on to it looking for a definition of what Whitehead meant by "emotion." I've familiar with Whitehead (tho not a true expert), but I come at emotion from the perspective of psychotherapy as well as the work of Sylvan Tompkins (research psychologist) and, to a lesser degree, the work of Jaak Panksepp. Tompkins discerned nine innate emotions in our species based upon cross cultural studies, facial and other bodily responses; Panksepp has discerned the neural pathways for seven basic emotions among all mammals. The way in which Whitehead uses the term, in that it can include subjective form (which can be about anything one can imagine) is seemingly without any specificity except intensity. If you can add or offer any more, I would be certainly appreciative!


David E. Roy, Ph.D. clinical at

Justin said...

Hi David
Thanks for the comment. It's been a while since I read Whitehead so I don't feel equipped to add much.
I imagine Whitehead would define "emotion" in a broader sense than a psychologist would - as being at most primitive level a "taking acount of" in terms of feelings of adversion or aversion, pleasure or pain, with increases in complexity and contrasts eventually leading to the spectrum of human emotions.