Subjectivity, Objectivity and Intersubjectivity: Toward a Post-Post Modern Metaphysics
In medieval theology, the term person was generally conceived in ontological terms. It defined, for example, the ongoing relations of the members of the Trinity to one another; Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist as one God paradoxically in virtue of their personal differences, their subsistent relations to one another.1 Likewise, Jesus of Nazareth as the Word Incarnate possesses both a human and a divine nature within the unity of his ontological perrsonhood.2 In the early modern period with the new focus on human subjectivity (e.g., Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum3), the notion of person was conceived more in psychological terms, namely, as an ongoing subject of experience. Moreover, even to the present day the terms person and community are normally restricted to the relations of human beings to one another. The task of this paper, however, will be to defend the hypothesis that human personhood and human community only make complete sense within an overarching metaphysics of universal intersubjectivity. That is, interrelated subjects of experience exist at every level of existence and activity within Nature, and their aggregation into what Alfred North Whitehead called “societies” make up what we human beings experience as individual persons and things.4 Hence, the notions of subjectivity and objectivity, which have become so controversial in the current postmodern era, should be expanded to take on cosmic significance. In this way, as I shall explain below, intersubjectivity is a necessary precondition for achieving reliable objectivity even as intersubjectivity itself invariably presupposes an already existing objective state of affairs.
This essay, accordingly, will be divided into two parts, in the first of which I will address the issue of truth and objectivity in terms of the arguments of three prominent philosophers: Bernard Lonergan, Josiah Royce and Alfred North Whitehead. In each case I will suggest that the author in question partially succeeded but also partly failed to solve the problem of truth and objectivity. Lonergan’s appeal to authentic subjectivity as a consequence of attaining full rational self-consciousness, for example, did not sufficiently take into account the need for sustained dialogue between human beings properly to assess and evaluate complex issues and problems.5 There are, for example, forms of bias and prejudice of which we remain unconscious even after we have attained in our own minds full self-awareness. Yet these unconscious prejudices have a very limiting effect on our objective judgments about people and situations. Racism and sexism most obviously come to mind here. Often the only way to become aware of these impediments to true objectivity is through interpersonal exchange with someone of a different race or sexual orientation. Lonergan was certainly aware of the perspectival character of human knowing and the need for interpersonal exchange to broaden one’s perspective on any given issue,6but his focus is still on the individual’s effort to achieve rational self-consciousness in various ways rather than on the dialogical situation as such.
Josiah Royce, on the contrary, emphasized the need for dialogue, even what we might call trialogue as a result of his theory of interpretation of signs,7 in the pursuit of truth and objectivity. Communities thus come into existence to facilitate the interpretation of signs among their members. A community is precisely a group of people who share a common past and anticipate a common future in terms of certain events which they all experience and inevitably interpret through various signs (words, gestures, actions).8 Furthermore, initial “communities of interpretation,” if they remain open to the quest for truth and objectivity, will feel the need to dialogue with still other communities of interpretation so as to gain a better understanding of the situation at hand. In the end, all the more limited communities of interpretation must merge so as to form a Universal Community of Interpretation embracing all humankind and all possible human perspectives. But at this point in my judgment Royce falters in implementing his theory. He postulates God as the Supreme Interpreter who “interprets all to all, and each individual to the world, and the world of spirits to each individual.”9 He apparently does not sufficiently trust his own dialogical or processive approach to truth and objectivity. God as the transcendent participant in the universal process of interpretation is needed to guarantee that truth and objectivity are in the end attained. Only God can overview the entire process and give it the unity of a single insight representing what is in fact the case.10
In this respect, Whitehead was more faithful to a process-oriented approach to truth and objectivity in that he made God a full participant in the cosmic process of interpretation of events. Hence, God too is involved in the ongoing quest for truth and objectivity. But the flaw in Whitehead’s approach is that he thereby confused the subjectivity of God’s experience and interpretation of the world with the world’s full truth and objective unity.11 Admittedly, God’s experience and consequent interpretation of what is happening in the world at any given moment is far more comprehensive than that of any human being or even of the Universal Community of Interpretation embracing all humankind. But it is still not the same as truth and objectivity as such, namely, what is in fact the case here and now as a result of the exchange of interpretations among all the participants to the process of interpretation, including God as the Supreme Interpreter. Whitehead made this “mistake” because within his metaphysical scheme God is the only enduring “actual entity.”12 The world of finite and thus non-enduring “actual entities” is continually being absorbed into God’s “consequent nature,” the overarching unity of God’s experience of the world, past and present.13 As a result, the unity of God’s subjective experience of the world is mistakenly seen as the full truth and objective unity of the world as an ongoing process at any given moment.
What then is to be done if all three of these notable philosophers do not solve the problem of truth and objectivity in our world? Here I propose my own theory based on a process-oriented trinitarian approach to reality. For, as I see it, only if God is conceived as a community of divine persons with an inner divine life as well as ongoing involvement in the world of creation can one avoid the implicit dualism of Royce’s theory in which God remains detached from the inevitable limitations of the cosmic process of interpretation and the ambiguity of Whitehead’s scheme in which God’s subjective interpretation of the cosmic process of interpretation is confused with its truth and objectivity at any given moment. Rather, what seems to be needed is a panentheistic understanding of the God-world relationship whereby the world exists within God and through the power of God but remains distinct from God in its own finite identity.14 In this way, the three divine persons of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity can be intimately involved in the world of creation from moment to moment, guiding creatures (for Whitehead, actual occasions or momentary subjects of experience) in their self-constituting decisions. Yet the same divine persons possess an inner divine life with an experience of space and time which completely transcends the space-time parameters of the cosmic process. Thus in a way which we human beings find difficult to comprehend, a thousand years of time in this world is like a single day for the divine persons, and a single day for them is like a thousand years for us.15
But, one may object, do not most process philosophers and theologians following the lead of Charles Hartshorne, Whitehead’s most celebrated disciple, likewise find a way to endorse a doctrine of panentheism without reference to a specifically Trinitarian understanding of the God-world relationship? Specifically, cannot one with Hartshorne claim that God as One or uni-personal is the “soul” of the universe and the universe is the “body” of God?16 One can indeed make that claim and thereby legitimately defend the belief that God is in the world and yet distinct from it just as the soul of a human being is closely linked with the human body but still distinct from it. Yet there are problems with this analogy. God as the soul of the universe seems to need the world in order for God as such to exist. Likewise, the world as a whole and each of us as individuals within the world seem to lose our identity as distinct from God. Equivalently, we become God’s “body-parts” and are no longer able to communicate with God on an interpersonal basis.17
Within my own trinitarian process-oriented approach to the God-world relationship, however, one can claim that the three divine persons and all their creatures are co-participants in an all-embracing cosmic community while retaining their separate identities as different subjects of experience. That is, the divine persons in virtue of their intra-trinitarian relations already co-constitute a primordial community with a strictly infinite range or field of activity. Through their free decision to create a world of creatures distinct from themselves, they equivalently invite these same creatures into the intimacy of their own divine communitarian life to the degree that the creatures (above all, human beings) can respond to the divine invitation and thus share in that life.18 Accordingly, just as a principle of intersubjectivity is operative in the relations of the divine persons to one another so as to sustain their objective reality as one God, so the same principle of intersubjectivity is operative in the world of creation to bring into existence multiple communities and environments of dynamically interrelated finite entities. Nothing within creation thus exists strictly for itself and in total isolation from its contemporaries. Everything is interconnected; everywhere one finds communities and environments of entities from subatomic particles as components of atoms to the multiple configurations of galaxies in outer space.19 Moreover, all these communities and environments are somehow participant in the all-embracing divine community, the divine life as communicated to creatures through the free decision of the divine persons.
Implicit in this model for the God-world relationship, to be sure, is my own understanding of Whiteheadian societies as structured fields of activity for successive generations of constituent actual entities.20 Understood in this way, Whiteheadian societies are not higher-order subjects of experience but specifically social realities with an enduring objectivity distinct from the momentary subjectivity of their constituent actual entities at any given moment.21 These fields of activity, in other words, carry forward from moment to moment the intelligible form or objective pattern of existence and activity which constitutes the ongoing identity of the society as this rather than that physical reality. There is, accordingly, some affinity between this understanding of fields and the notion of substance within classical metaphysics. But, whereas substances necessarily remain external to and in some degree opposed to one another, fields can be layered inside one another.22 In this way lower-level fields serve as the necessary infrastructure for the existence and activity of higher-order fields, and vice-versa higher-order fields provide the superstructure or control mechanism further specifying the ongoing operation of lower-level fields. Whitehead in Process and Reality declared that the reasons for things are only to be found in actual entities, ultimately in God as the primordial actual entity, but proximately in the self-constitution of individual finite entities in their relations to one another.23 But this new understanding of societies as enduring fields of activity for successive generations of finite actual entities locates the deeper reasons for things in societies as objectively constituted realities: ultimately the all-embracing community of the three divine persons of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but proximately the objective structures of existence and activity generated by finite actual entities in their dynamic interrelation at any given moment. These structures of intelligibility are initially incorporated into prevailing societal patterns within the cosmic process but only so as to be preserved for all time within the pattern of the divine life itself, what the New Testament calls the Kingdom of God.24
All this may seem to be a fine point of Whiteheadian scholarship, something of interest only to longtime students of Whitehead’s thought. But, as I stated in the beginning of this essay, it has significant implications for the notion of truth and objectivity in our postmodern world. For, if there is widespread skepticism about the possibility of truth and objectivity in Western society at present as a result of the critique of classical subjectivity and the widespread distrust of objectivity in terms of system building,25 then a case can be made for grounding truth and objectivity in dialogue or sustained intersubjectivity rather than simply in personal reflection and/or appeals to objective reason. Yet, in terms of my neo-Whiteheadian metaphysics of universal intersubjectivity as sketched above, intersubjectivity at any level of existence and activity within Nature presupposes an objectively existing state of affairs both as its starting-point and end-result. That is, Whiteheadian actual occasions or momentary self-constituting subjects of experience always originate within an already structured field of activity and by their dynamic interrelation at any given moment either confirm or slightly modify that same structure within their conjoint field of activity. In this way, genuine objectivity and ongoing intersubjectivity mutually condition one another at all levels of existence and activity within Nature, but in a special way within human discourse and communication. Thus dialogue between human beings over complex issues and plans of action is not simply a convenient strategy to get participants to deal with one another civilly rather than with obvious suspicion or even open hostility. It is in effect the only consistent way to move forward in human affairs with the expectation that something genuinely new is likely to emerge as a result.
Moreover, given the presupposition of a metaphysics of universal intersubjectivity, where the principle of intersubjectivity is judged to be at work not only in human affairs but everywhere in the world of Nature, then “dialogue” in an extended sense would seem to be an all-pervasive feature of a world in evolution. That is, if one accepts the Whiteheadian proposal that “the final real things of which this world is made up” are actual entities or momentary self-constituting subjects of experience,26 then their aggregation into “societies” or, as I propose, objective structured fields of activity for those same actual entities, would seem to constitute the order of Nature.27 Furthermore, growth in complexity within the physical order can only come about as a result of the dynamic interrelation among constituent actual entities within societies at each level of existence and activity within Nature at any given moment. Hence, “dialogue” among actual entities would seem to be the key to understanding change or evolution of form and function within Nature.
Unexpected confirmation for this proposal seems to come from proponents of contemporary chaos theory like Stuart Kauffman in his book At Home in the Universe.28 Kauffman is not a metaphysician, much less a disciple of Alfred North Whitehead; but his theory that Nature progresses to new levels of complexity in virtue of an innate principle of self-organization beginning at the molecular level of existence and activity readily lends itself to further theoretical explanation in terms of a metaphysics of universal intersubjectivity such as I have proposed above. That is, Kauffman claims that, when molecules are gathered together in sufficient numbers over an extended period of time, “a self-sustaining network of reactions – an autocalytic metabolism – will suddenly appear.”29If it survives and prospers within its immediate environment, it has the capacity to explain the transition from non-life to life or in any case from a lower level of organization within Nature to a higher level. Here, of course, is where the traditional Darwinian principle of natural selection likewise plays a key role, weeding out what ultimately does not work in the context of the environment in which it happens to be located. So, in Kauffman’s view, natural selection conditions the workings of the principle of self-organization within Nature, and the principle of self-organization provides natural selection with a better reason than mere chance for the emergence of new forms of life.
Structurally, Kauffman’s notion of self-organizing chemical systems and Whitehead’s notion of a “society” as a set of actual entities linked by a common element of form are quite similar. Both self-organizing chemical systems for Kauffman and societies for Whitehead are socially organized realities emergent out of the dynamic interplay of their component parts or members.30 In his subsequent book Investigations, Kauffman frequently uses the term “autonomous agents” to describe self-organizing systems as entities emergent out of the interplay of their component parts or members.31 But here one must be careful. For, when Whitehead discusses “structured societies” or societies composed of subsocieties of actual entities in Process and Reality, he seems to revert to a more classical understanding of the relation between life and non-life. Whereas Kauffman believes that life spontaneously emerges from the dynamic interaction of non-living components (chemical systems), Whitehead claims that structured societies which are “living” have a “regnant nexus” of entirely living actual entities which is supported by but still functionally superior to the other subsocieties of actual entities that are inanimate, non-living.32 What he thereby leaves unresolved is the question of the origin of this nexus of “entirely living” actual entities. How could it have emerged out of the dynamic interplay of inanimate actual entities? Once emerged, how was it sustained and carried forward to the next set of actual occasions? The problem is that Whitehead attributes agency exclusively to individual actual entities and does not seem to recognize the validity of a collective agency for the society as a whole so that it can function as a reality in its own right.33 But, if so, it is difficult to see how Whiteheadian societies as aggregates of similarly constituted but independently existing inanimate actual occasions can spontaneously bring about a life-form radically different from themselves as individuals.
Yet, if one accepts my proposal that Whiteheadian societies are ongoing structured fields of activity for their constituent actual occasions and that these structured fields of activity have a collective agency proper to themselves distinct from the agency of their constituent actual entities, namely, a formal or “informational” agency guiding the basic pattern of interrelation for ever-new sets of these actual entities, then the problem is quite possibly resolved. Life can emerge from the dynamic interplay of inanimate actual entities, as Kauffman maintains for chemical systems, albeit with gentle prompting from what Whitehead calls a divine “initial aim,” a non-coercive “lure” toward a higher-order form of existence and activity.34 A set of inanimate actual entities constituting a given subsociety within a larger Whiteheadian “structured society,” for example, could by their dynamic interrelation here and now and with the implicit guidance of a divine initial aim generate a dramatically new common element of form for their collective reality as this subsociety. Furthermore, if this new common element of form with its potential for higher-order existence and activity is not immediately rejected but rather sustained and supported by the next set of actual entities (and their successors) within that same subsociety, then this subsociety in its altered form could over time evolve into what Kauffman refers to as a “self-sustaining network of reactions” or “autocatalytic metabolism” characteristic of life as opposed to non-life. Working as an “autocatalytic metabolism,” this subsociety could then bring it about that the structured society as a whole eventually makes the transition from non-life to life.
For, if and when a novel form of existence and activity is introduced within a single subsociety through the collective activity of its constituent actual entities, then all the other subsocieties and their component actual entities have to adjust to what has happened in their midst, either by incorporating the change of pattern and operation into their own individual and group self-constitution or by rejecting it. If they in some way incorporate this structural novelty or new common element of form into their pattern of operation, then the structured society as a whole would be significantly altered and gradually make the transition from non-life to life. If, however, the other subsocieties do not accept this change of pattern or common element of form proposed by one of their co-existent subsocieties, then the subsociety which originated the change of pattern will either regress to its previous pattern of inanimate existence or break up altogether. The other subsocieties of actual entities will have equivalently suppressed this novel advance within their midst so as better to preserve the order and directionality received from their predecessors in the structured society.
This account differs from Whitehead’s own explanation of the growth of complexity in the cosmic process because it focuses on the role that societies necessarily play in transmitting a new pattern of existence and activity once it originates within a given set of interrelated actual occasions. The societies, in other words, constitute a necessary principle of continuity in an ever-changing world for which Whitehead himself with his strong focus on the self-constitution of actual occasions fails adequately to take into account. Furthermore, this neo-Whiteheadian understanding of societies seems to correlate nicely with what Kauffman in At Home in the Universe says about the relatively haphazard and unpredictable way that life emerges from non-life. He says, for example, that “life evolves toward a regime that is poised between order and chaos.”35 It is never certain whether life will prevail over non-life and, if it does prevail, what precise form or structure it will take. Likewise, in this field-oriented approach to Whiteheadian societies a delicate balance between novelty and order is achieved. The constituent actual occasions by their dynamic interrelation at any given moment account for the unexpected emergence of novelty; but the overall structure of the field in which these actual occasions arise and to which they contribute their momentary pattern of interrelation changes much more slowly.
One should not, of course, over-estimate these similarities between Kauffman’s proposal of an innate principle of self-organization within Nature and my own revision of Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. Differences remain. Kauffman is a bio-chemist, using computer models to analyze possible ways in which molecules can be combined to generate primitive life-forms. I am a metaphysician with other ambitions, namely, to rethink Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme with much stronger emphasis on the socially constructed character of reality as a consequence of universal intersubjectivity. But it is interesting to note that Kauffman himself sees the need for a broader frame of reference for his work in biochemistry. As he says in At Home in the Universe, “[n]owhere in science have we an adequate way to state and study the interleaving of self-organization, selection, chance and design. We have no adequate framework for the place of law in a historical science and the place of history in a lawful science.”36 So it may well be that my revision of Whitehead’s metaphysics or something akin to it might be what Kauffman is ultimately looking for by way of a broader frame of reference.
One can in any case claim that Kauffman like Whitehead and myself is reacting strongly against a predominately mechanistic approach to the phenomenon of change or development within an evolutionary world view. For too long natural scientists have tacitly accepted Rene Descartes’ celebrated distinction between the clear ideas of matter and mind with the unhappy result that Nature has been effectively reduced to a cosmic machine regulated by mathematically formulated laws. There are, to be sure, evident advantages to a mathematically precise study of the laws of Nature, but these advantages are clearly outweighed if the realm of spirit not only in human life but everywhere in Nature is undervalued or flatly denied. Whitehead’s aim from the beginning of his philosophical career with the publication of Science and the Modern World was to expose this “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” confusing a partial representation of reality for the reality itself in all its fullness.37 My own efforts to rethink Whitehead’s category of society in the light of a metaphysics of universal intersubjectivity is, as I see it, a further step in basically the same direction.
N.B. The full argument of the paper is to be found in a forthcoming book entitled Subjectivity, Objectivity and Intersubjectivity: A New Paradigm for Religion and Science to be published by Templeton Foundation Press.
5See Bracken, Christianity and Process Thought: Spirituality for a Changing World (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2006), 66-67. See also Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S.J., Method in Theology (New York: Herder & Herder, 1972), 57-61, where he discusses intersubjectivity and intersubjective meaning in quite general terms, but does not focus his attention on the quest for truth in terms of systematic dialogue. See also 292: “Genuine objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity. It is attained only by attaining authentic subjectivity.” Intersubjectivity in terms of systematic dialogue is not thereby excluded, but it is clearly not the primary focus of attention for Lonergan.
6See Lonergan, Method in Theology, 125-45, where he makes clear the need for a clear division of labor in terms of “functional specialities” in order to develop a systematic understanding of Christian doctrine and its appropriate mode of communication to the faithful.
7See Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 273-95. As Royce sees it, interpretation of signs as distinct from perception of sense data and conception of ideas presupposes three human beings: the interpreter of a given sign, the one whose mind is being interpreted through that sign, and the individual to whom the interpretation is being offered. In principle, one and the same person could be here and now interpreting his own past mind to his future self, as Charles Sanders Peirce claimed; but Royce differed from Peirce in asserting that only a community of interpreters could be sure of arriving at the full truth of a given situation (312-319).
8Ibid., 241: “A community has a past and will have a future. Its more or less conscious history, real or ideal, is a part of its very essence. A community requires for its existence a history and is greatly aided in its consciousness by a memory.”
10Ibid., 340: the Universal Community of Interpretation “expresses its life in an infinite series of individual interpretation, each of which occupies its own place in a perfectly real order of time. If, however, this community of interpretation reaches its goal, this whole time-process is in some fashion spanned by one insight which surveys the unity of its meaning.”
11Whitehead, Process and Reality, 350-51, where Whitehead describes the “four creative phases in which the universe accomplishes its actuality.” The multiplicity of events in the universe in the second phase are brought into unity through incorporation into the consequent nature of God in the third phase. Only as thus perfected in God can the past influence the present in the fourth and final phase of the creative process.
16See Charles Hartshorne, “The Compound Individual,” in Philosophical Essays for Alfred North Whitehead, ed. F. S. C. Northrup (New York: Russell & Russell, 1936), 218-20; likewise by the same author, Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (Hamden, CN: Archon Books, 1964), 174-211.
17See on this point Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1987), 63. She still uses the metaphor with qualification because belief in God as personally involved in the world of creation is so important for her.
21See, e.g., David Ray Griffin, “Of Minds and Molecules: Postmodern Medicine in a Psychosomatic Universe,” The Reenchantment of Science, 158. Griffin claims that atoms and molecules are unified entities because they are subjects of experience of a higher-order than the other constituent actual entities within the atom or molecule as a Whiteheadian “structured society.” This may or may not be compatible with Whitehead’s remarks about a “regnant nexus”within structured societies in Process and Reality, 103. But, as I shall indicate below, such a classical Platonic understanding of the relationship between the One and the Many does not fit well with the spontaneous “emergence” of life from non-life and progressive growth in complexity among living things in evolutionary biology.
22See Whitehead, Process and Reality, 90: “In reference to any given society the world of actual entities is to be conceived as forming a background in layers of social order, the defining characteristics becoming wider and more general as we widen the background.” “Layers of social order” I take to be compatible with the theory of fields within fields as indicated above.
25Cf. e.g., Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969) and Jacques Derrida, “Differance,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982). Yet, as I point out in The One in the Many, 77-94, 109-30, a metaphysics based on intersubjectivity rather than either subjectivity or objectivity in relative isolation from one another would go a long way to resolve the difficulties in “totalizing” schemes as understood by Levinas and Derrida.
27Ibid., 83-109, where Whitehead moves from a discussion of geometrical relations within what he calls “the extensive continuum” as the presupposition for the order of the present cosmic epoch to analysis of the soul-body relation within human beings and other higher-order animal organisms.
28Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995). See also his later, more technically written book Investigations (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000).
29Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, 47. As others have noted and as Kauffman himself concedes, he has developed his theory for the emergence of life from the self-organization of molecular components not from observation and experimentation in Nature but from Boolean networks and other mathematical models with computer-generated results (see, e.g., David J. Depew and Bruce H. Weber, Darwinism Evolving: Systems Dynamics and the Genealogy of Natural Selection [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995], 429-30; Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, 75-86, 99-111). But at this exploratory stage of investigation into the laws of self-organization in Nature, his hypothesis has generated considerable attention and interest among colleagues not only in molecular biology but in other related areas of research, even in the fields of economics and politics.
35Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, 26. See also Kauffman, Investigations , 22: “Communities of entities will coevolve to an ‘edge of chaos’ between overrigid and overfluid behavior. . . Moreover, autonomous agents forever push their way into
novelty – molecular, morphological, behavioral, organizational.” Some of these experiments in novel self-organization work and others fail. Here is where Darwin’s principle of natural selection comes into play in the gradual buildup of complexity within Nature.
36Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, 185. See also his comments in Investigations,104: “While we have, it seems, adequate concepts of matter, energy, entropy, and information. We lack a coherent concept of organization, its emergence, and self-constituting propagation and self-elaboration.”