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Brilliant Illumination of Whitehead's Relevance,
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This review is from: Whitehead's Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy: An Argument for Its Contemporary Relevance (S U N Y Series in Philosophy) (Paperback)
In Whitehead's Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy, David Ray Griffin makes the strongest possible case for the importance today of Alfred North Whitehead's philosophical legacy. Griffin shows that Whitehead, in a series of books published in the 1920s and 1930s, made great advances toward solving key philosophical problems that had puzzled and essentially defeated all the great names in Western philosophy from Descartes on. Griffin, as is usual in all of his writings, makes his case for Whitehead's relevance carefully, with due attention to and accurate statements of the arguments made by other scholars with whom he disagrees.
In Part 1 Griffin explains what he means by describing Whitehead's philosophy as "postmodern." In Griffin's usage postmodernism is a constructive advance beyond the many fraught positions of modernism which have created so many difficulties, not just for thought but also for activity in the world. Thus the term, in his hands, has little in common with the usual connotation, which he distinguishes with the term "deconstructive postmodernism." His "constructive" postmodernism is a move forward to new solutions, that combines a reappropriation of key aspects of premodern thought (that had been abandoned, to philosophy's loss) with the best features of modern philosophy.
The two chapters of Part 1 lay out the key elements of modern thought and "problematic modern assumptions" concerning metaphysics, rationality, causation, the world, the past, time, freedom and normative values, and briefly sketch Whitehead's positions on them. Chapter 2, on the relation of Whitehead's philosophy to the Enlightenment, locates the roots of Enlightenment thought in a "three-cornered battle of the worldviews," between entrenched Aristotelian-Thomistic cosmology, a radical Neoplatonic-Magical-Spiritualist tradition, and the "New Mechanical Philosophy" that developed into the modern scientific worldview. The victory of the mechanical movement in this contingent struggle, leading to modern mechanistic and atheistic science and philosophy, established a set of modern doctrines bearing the scars of this great contest, in the form of truncated, one-sided conceptions of naturalism, empiricism, rationalism, individualism, universal truths and values, and progress. Whitehead, Griffin shows, understood and responded to all this complexity, affirming some and disaffirming other parts of the resulting doctrines of modernity.
In the five chapters of Part 2 Griffin demonstrates the astonishing utility of Whitehead's suggestions in their applications to major problems dogging modern philosophy. Griffin's method is to present modern views as articulated by their best exponents, and then to show how Whitehead's postmodern ideas solve the insoluble problems that modern doctrines create. Chapter 3 deals with the mind/body problem, which has totally defeated both modern materialists and modern dualists. Griffin shows that Whitehead's doctrine of panexperientialism, with its non-reductionistic naturalism, allows affirmation of "hard-core" common sense assumptions about conscious experience which both materialists and dualists fail to account for: the impossibility of doubting the existence of one's own conscious experience (emphasized by Descartes, but not carried through to its full logical implications by him; this was left for Whitehead to do); that consciousness exerts influence upon the body; that consciousness has a degree of self-determining freedom; and that it can act in accord with normative values.
In Chapter 4 Griffin demonstrates the power of Whitehead's ideas for ecological ethics. His concept of the intrinsic value, the value for itself, of each actual entity, his elimination of "vacuous actualities" from nature, his panexperientialism with "organizational duality" (i.e., the distinction between actual individuals and aggregational societies of individuals), his doctrines of internal relations, enduring individuals as societies, and causation as influence ("prehension"), collectively provide the basis for a coherent ecological ethic that is otherwise unattainable, as Griffin persuasively argues.
In the fifth chapter, Griffin looks to Whitehead to help answer Pilate's question, "What is truth?", a question which modern philosophy has failed to answer satisfactorily. He argues that the doctrine of truth as correspondence is a hard-core commonsense notion, i.e., one that is common to all human beings in that it is presupposed in practice. Whitehead endorsed the pragmatic criterion of Peirce and James that, in Griffin's words, "our actions, more than our theories, show what we really believe. We should not pretend to doubt in our theories, they insisted, ideas that we inevitably presuppose in practice. . . Such assumptions. . . should be taken as universally valid criteria for judging the adequacy of any theory" (p. 88). Griffin in the bulk of this chapter demonstrates that modern criticisms of the doctrine of truth as correspondence are unintelligible. In its conclusion he is able to show on this basis that knowledge is dialogical. "Although truth is absolute in the sense of being independent of our cognitive activities, none of our beliefs, even those that we think of as knowledge, should be considered absolute. Human belief formation is a thoroughly fallible process. . .We need ongoing, endless dialogue with people of different genders, races, classes, countries, and cultures" (p. 104).
In Chapter 6 Griffin turns to the fundamental question of the reality of time. The question has always been central in Eastern and Western culture in the traditional concern to relate human "lived" time to notions of an atemporal divine reality. Today the question is central to understanding the relation of human experience to the "unreality" of the "time" portrayed by physics, which "has led to the conclusion that time as known in human experience is ultimately unreal, period" (p. 106). After characterizing "lived time" as asymmetric, constant becoming, and irreversible in principle, Griffin explores the claim that physics supports the unreality of time, and its importance for religious and moral philosophy. He then presents a devastating critique of the unreal time of physics based on Whitehead's doctrine of "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness," i.e., mistaking an abstraction from concrete realities for the concrete realities themselves. After a detailed discussion of the problematic positions of nontemporalism and temporal-nontemporal dualism, he endorses Whitehead's panexperientialist pantemporalism, which says that all actualities are temporal. He elaborates Whitehead's ideas regarding actual occasions as occasions of experience (experience requires time); memory and anticipation; the irreversibility of time; panexperientialism and atomic time; and chaotic time, the doctrine that there were temporal relations even in the primordial chaos which preceded the evolution of our "world", i.e., universe.
Griffin in Chapter 7 deals with "the crisis in moral theory," i.e., the crisis from the perspective of atheistic modern philosophy, which now reluctantly recognizes that ethics requires some form of theism. Whitehead's postmodern theism overcomes "two major weaknesses of late modern moral theory: its inability to defend moral realism and its inability to provide a basis for moral motivation" (p. 139). Griffin details the failure of modern philosophy to provide for moral objectivity or realism in terms of its difficulties in solving Plato's problem (how and where normative ideals exist), the Benacerraf problem (how numbers and moral forms, being merely ideal entities, can exert causal efficacy), and the Gödel problem (how we can perceive ideal entities). He then outlines its failure to find a basis for moral motivation without invoking God or the Holy. All these insoluble difficulties find their solution in Whitehead's work. Plato's and Benacerraf's problems are solved with his "ontological principle" ("Everything must be somewhere; and here 'somewhere' means 'some actual entity' "), and his doctrine of "eternal objects" of two "species", the objective and the subjective. Gödel's problem is solved with Whitehead's doctrine of "prehension," direct, nonsensory perception, in this case of the causal influence of the divine actuality.
In the two chapters of Part 3 Griffin examines Whitehead's theism, a form of panentheism, in detail. Chapter 8 is a sparkling defense of the coherence of Whitehead's panentheism "against the common claim that relativity physics is incompatible with the temporalistic type of theism affirmed by Whiteheadian process philosophy" (p. 166). According to Whitehead, time is real for God because it belongs to the ultimate nature of reality (as shown in Chapter 6); God is not outside of or above time. The criticism is that this view of God in time implies there is an unambiguous cosmic "now", and that this has been disproven by special relativity physics. Griffin argues that Einsteinian special relativity physics does not, however, provide "the metaphysical truth, or even the ultimate cosmological truth, about time" (p. 171). Whitehead's metaphysics includes causal influence different in kind from light signals, which need not be limited to the speed of light, that is, it is transmitted directly between remote occasions, not through a route of contiguous occasions. "This instantaneous influence would mean. . .that most of those remote events that are considered contemporaries within special relativity theory would be connected by causal relations. . . going in one direction or the other." This leads to a " 'postrelativistic' universe, in which all events are unambiguously either in the past of, or in the future of, or contemporary with, all other events. There would, accordingly, be a cosmic 'now' " (p. 177).
Chapter 9 is a detailed critique of the work of Robert Neville, a philosophical theologian who has claimed that process theism, based on Whitehead's doctrines, is "incoherent, superfluous, and descriptive of an alleged reality that would not be worthy of worship even if it existed." Griffin ably defends his own version of process theism, showing that Neville's critical terminology better describes his own work. Finally, an Appendix explicates a difficult but important set of passages in Whitehead's magnum opus, Process and Reality, concerning what Whitehead calls the "subjectivist principle," convincingly making the case for revolutionary implications in the "subjectivist turn" of Descartes that had been overlooked by Descartes and subsequent philosophers, which provide a formidable support for his own panexperientialist metaphysics.
Whitehead's Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy by David Ray Griffin is an exciting and engaging work. It is written with great clarity, even elegance, and with a continually impressive richness and depth, which cannot be conveyed in a review. No student of philosophy would fail to benefit greatly from reading this book.
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Initial post: Mar 30, 2015 1:50:23 PM PDT
Paul Holcombe says:
Hey, my copy of WRDPP arrived in the mail today. The funny thing about that is it is your old copy, including some old email correspondences with David Ray Griffin, I just thought I would share that with you.
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