Integrating Whitehead: Toward an Environmental Ethic

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Integrating Whitehead: Toward an Environmental Ethic

Sean Esbjörn-Hargens

Quote:The main issue here is that, though Whitehead acknowledges interiority, he reduces all interiority to "prehension:" the pre-conscious experience of a subject "feeling" another subject (as object).6 Whitehead does explore a variety of prehensions (conceptual, hybrid, impure, negative, and physical) but they are all shades of the same color. He does not fully develop or appreciate the many types of interiority that emerge after prehensions. This is understandable given that he was writing before the major insights of developmental psychology had come onto the scene. I claim that this inability to distinguish the many variations of interiority is a form of reductionism because it collapses all interiors into the concept of prehension (complex as this concept is).

Once you expand interiors beyond the limited (though insightful) notion of prehensions, a hierarchy of interiors becomes apparent. This hierarchy of interiors (subjectivity) has correlates in the exterior (objective) dimensions of form and it is important to acknowledge these parallel and equivalent hierarchies. The relationship between the levels in each of these hierarchies is one of "transcend and include" as Wilber puts it. Whitehead captures this with his adage: "The many become one and are increased by one."

However, Whitehead's account is incomplete in an important way because he fails to honor the complexity of interiority in all its varieties. Not only is it problematic to assign the concept of "prehension" (the basic unit of interiority) to all exteriors (which complexifies with evolution), as it appears Whitehead tends to do, but you also need to account for the post-rational stages of interiority (e.g., the realms discussed at length by such traditions as shamanism, Buddhism, and Vedanta. Thus, I will show how Whitehead's system begins to make more sense when you complexify his understanding of prehension (interiority) to include more complex forms of subjectivity.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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