Friday 12 June 2015

Was Whitehead a materialist?

S.C. Hickman on the Dark Ecologies blog has a very nice short introduction to Whitehead's Process and Reality, particularly concentrating on its cosmological aspects. He writes, by way of a concluding parenthesis, that this is part of an "ongoing project of developing a materialist philosophy".

This got me thinking about something that's been bothering me for a while: why some often claim Whitehead as a 'materialist.' I'm not trying to pick on Hickman here (he didn't say that Whitehead was a materialist, only that he's using Whitehead in developing a materialist philosophy) but it's something that comes up quite often, one way or another.

My own inclination (no more thought through than that, to be honest) is to say that, in Whitehead's terms, materialism is a philosophy that makes matter its Ultimate. Following that on, Whitehead would have to be (in P&R at least) a creativist; Aristotle a substantialist, etc.

Whatever way matter is conceived (and there are of course indefinitely many ways of conceiving it), 'materialism' must surely be related to matter qua conceptual fundament -- that is, as the thing that explains nothing but is assumed so that the rest of existence can be conceptually constructed (as the Ultimate).

There's a lot of pretty wishy-washy talk of 'materialism' that just says 'things, therefore materialism,' which tends to result in platitudes rather than insights. (Perhaps that's just me being mean; but, then again, maybe not.) It generally presupposes that anything that isn't idealism -- i.e. anything that takes non-human things seriously -- is therefore materialism, which I find to be unhelpful at best (and part of a systematic stupidification of thought, at worst).

This is basically what I was getting at with a post I wrote on 'new materialism' a couple of months ago.

It's a poorly articulated irritation that I'm describing here but it derives from a complacency that is, I think, widespread and real.