Saturday, April 02, 2005

Experiencing the Particular

Whitehead argues that experience is not a relation to universals, as was commonly supposed in rationalist epistemology dating back at least to Descartes. It was Descartes who supposed that his observation of a men walking in the street was actually an inference to the existence of particular men from the perception of their hats and coats, and that furthermore the inference of the existence of hats and coats derived from the subject's relation to the universals of hat-shapes and coat-shapes. Thus, experience begins with relations to universals and infers particulars from them.

Whitehead claims that this view is mistaken. Instead, experience is constituted by internal relations to particulars--those men and those particular hats and coats. Agreeing with Locke, he argues that the mind then abstracts universals from the particulars--creating notions such as hat-shapes and coat-shapes. He justifies this claim by arguing that the Cartesian epistemology treats the human mind as if it were another substance, showing that this assumption creates a substance dualism that cannot be justified because no necessary relation between the extended and unextended substances can be demonstrated. In addition, Whitehead seems to think he can hoist Kant on this same petard, but that is where I am not so sure.

It is not clear that Kant has a substance metaphysics in mind when dealing with the human subject--far from it, in fact, considering Kant's lengthy discussion of the transcendental unity of apperception. Moreover, Kant's transcendental deduction attempts to show that such an ordering of the process of experience could not be possible without some prior categories with which to abstract universals from the particulars. To say that an actual entity must be internally related to another particular actual entity would only make sense as the description of an experience of that particular if the operative categories were in place to mediate such a relation. Whitehead's acknowledgement of this problem occurs in his claim that fact and form (i.e., the particulars of the past and the eternal universals) are mutually implicative and equally constitutive of every actual occasion. A lot is riding on that claim, and I'm wondering if it may be too much.


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