Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Nunc

How do things change, yet remain themselves? It’s one of the basic philosophical problems. Things that can be discerned from each other on account of their differences are simply not the same thing. If you can’t tell two things apart no matter how closely you examine them, well then they are just the same thing. But if you can tell them apart even the least little bit, then they are just not identical: they simply *can’t* be the same thing.

Yet our experience of what it is like to be, and to become, includes the experience of changing while remaining ourselves. How?

Aristotle took a (shrewd and powerful) shot at the problem, when he distinguished between accidental and essential properties of things. The essential properties of a thing are what make it the thing that it is, and the accidental properties can change without making it into something else altogether. So, e.g., as long as my essence is unchanged, I am me whether I happen to be in San Francisco or in Berkeley.

But it doesn’t quite work, does it? The more you examine the me of Berkeley versus the me of San Francisco, the more important the differences look. Even if there are no important differences, are the two versions of me different at all? Then they are just different things, aren’t they?

Whitehead gave in. He went ahead and admitted that the me of Berkeley and the me of San Francisco are altogether different things, different substantial entities. They are connected to each other, though, are they not? How?

This is a special case of the more general question: how does one thing exert causal effect upon another?

Whitehead treated causation – the links between events – under the heading of the only sort of transition to which we can have any direct access, or that we can therefore know about directly: the transition between one moment of our own lives and another. Such transitions are the only evidence we can possibly have about what causal transition is like.

In such transitions, no new moment is a complete innovation, utterly different from its predecessors. Rather, we feel the feelings we can feel that we have recently felt, so that we feel them over a whole series of moments, first swelling in intensity and then trailing off into a dim memory of feeling.

When I have gone from San Francisco to Berkeley, the me of Berkeley feels what the me of San Francisco was like – or rather, is still and forever like, as being past, completely defined, and thus thenceforth changeless – and incorporates some of the feelings of what the San Francisco me was like – its feelings about itself and its world – into its own constitution.

Whitehead called these feelings “prehensions:” to prehend is to grasp or seize an aspect of a prior entity, and take some aspect of it for oneself, and to be an aspect of oneself. When an entity prehends another, it feels the feelings that that entity felt, and takes them for and as its own. This taking involves those feelings in the final constitution of the latter entity, forming its character – and, thus, the way it then feels to subsequent entities.

The later me of Berkeley, then, by feeling the earlier me of San Francisco and adopting almost all of its properties for its own, in a way includes in itself everything that was included in the me of San Francisco, while adding some additional properties – memories, experiences, novel ideas, and so forth. If nothing else, the later me of Berkeley adds its own Berkeleyan perspective to the data present in the prior me of San Francisco – and to all the prior moments of me. In so doing, the me of Berkeley reinstantiates the form that is the essential form of me, that was expressed also in all my prior moments.

What we get with this is the idea that a person with a history is a sort of society of moments distributed over a temporal extent – a life span, or career. Although they are essentially alike, they are ontologically distinct from each other, and causally important to each other; and together, they form a temporal “togetherness” or “nexus,” that on account of their basic similarity respecting the most important aspects of their characters, all exhibit a character that is recognizable as just theirs.

Now notice that this was really nothing more on Whitehead’s part than an elaboration of Aristotle’s notion of a distribution of essential and accidental properties over the existential career of a substantial thing, with the only difference being that Whitehead treated that career as if it were a series of discrete clips sewn together, whereas Aristotle had treated it as if it were a single movie. Aristotle had no notion of the techniques of animation, whereas Whitehead did. Whitehead could see how a series of discrete images could assemble a continuous smooth change.

Animation is a terrific analogy for Whitehead’s vision of causal continuity. Another is the integrity of a performance of a piece of music. Purcell’s Te Deum in D as performed is a series of quite distinct waves of sound, each with a different form, and temporally distributed. Yet it is a single thing, with each moment of its career bearing a coherent and complex and specific relation to every other. If our vision was good enough, we could spread out and read all the pages of the score at once, and even hear them altogether in imagination, as great composers have reported that they are able to do. But the only way the piece can be implemented actually is as a temporally distributed series of discrete events.

Excursus: compare God’s eternal perspective, to which all moments, however distributed over time, space, or other causal dimensions, are present simultaneously.

Notice also that Whitehead had done nothing more here than take Newton’s insight into the relation between differentiation and integration, and applied it to the real world. Newton had treated the smooth integral curve as the truest image of reality – naturally enough – as may be seen from the name he gave to the process by which it may be decomposed into its component infinitesimal parts: derivation. Whitehead flipped that, and treated the series of discrete Newtonian infinitesimals as the best picture of how things truly are, and the smooth curve of their integral as derivate. So doing, he transcended Newton’s static Cartesian space. Space and time became for Whitehead instead a derivate – a fossil, as it were – of the creative surge of novel events.

Excursus: this is actually rather important. It is one of those figure-ground reversals of perspective that, counterintuitive as it first seems, nevertheless gives us a much better grasp of reality. This: space is not the environment of events. It is, rather, the network of prehensile relations between events, the causal web. It is, then, lively, unfolding, elaborating. And, it is growing.

That’s not all. Because space and time are derivates of the causal relations between actual occasions – are how we apprehend, specify, and understand these relations – we find that actual occasions are not in time and space at all. They themselves are timeless, and have no locus, other than what is given by their relations to other moments, other acts, other events. This means that a moment in the process of its own formation might in principle immediately prehend any other moment whatever as a datum of its own constitution, provided that moment was itself already actual. In principle, then, a novel moment might constitute itself as importantly influenced by the characters of events in the causal vicinity of Caesar’s death; it might in itself elaborate upon those characters, fleshing out more fully the scenario of his assassination. Any scene, then, might ever be under further construction: the moment of Caesar’s death might not ever be quite fully fleshed out.

The key thing to note here is that occasions of becoming are not simply located in space and time. There is no space or time apart from the matrix of relations between already actual entities. And this means, quite simply, that *occasions come to be pretemporally.* Which is to say, that they come to be in the environment of eternity; of timelessness.

Notice then also that what Whitehead did with his notion of the actual event was accommodate the basic discontinuity that quantum mechanics had then just discovered apparently lies at the root of being in our universe. The Whiteheadian moment is physically expressed as the quantum of action, of information, of certainty: of fact.

The quantum of action effected by Whitehead’s occasion of becoming is just Aristotle’s act, in virtue of which myriad potentialities are reduced to actualities. It is the “collapse of the Schrödinger wave function” so beloved of our New Age students of consciousness who hang in Taos and Santa Fe.

There is yet more. In his account of the concrescence of actual events, Whitehead recapitulated Plato and anticipated Claude Shannon, integrating their insights. The prehension of other already actual events by which each novel occasion begins its own process of becoming is in effect an ingression to it – precisely, an information, in the Shannonian sense, by a signal (mediated by prehension) – of the Platonic forms already expressed and concretely manifest in its actual world. Becoming then involves communication, and each instant thereof is the achievement of a new community of agreement about what’s what – or, as Whitehead called it simply, a “togetherness,” literally a toward + gathering: a communion.

Excursus: The congruence of Whitehead’s scheme with the mature theology of the eucharist is evident.

Then, at last, there is Beauty. Whitehead characterized prehensions as feelings (rather than impacts or collisions or something of that dumb dead Democritean sort) not just because he was quite aware of the physics of fields (there’s no such thing, really, as a collision), but because he was convinced that prehension is *experience.* Not, NB, that physical transactions are sort of like experience, but that, being the transfer of information from one particular event to another, they *just are* instances of suffering.

Prehensions are feelings of prior feelings; so that they are inherently evaluative: feelings always have some aesthetic character, and therefore some value, ergo some valence, some allure or repulsion. And as feelings of things, prehensions are always intensional; they are about things other than themselves.

As intensional, and significant – as, i.e., *meaning* something or other – prehensions and occasions are also teleological. The feelings of an occasion of becoming about its past, and about how it should best and most beautifully respond thereto by way of its own self-construction (its sub-creation), are inevitably informed also by the overall structure of the world it inherits, and by a vision of the world toward which it would bend its urges, its hopes, its powers. The constitution of an act is an assertion of how the world ought optimally to be; a proposal of that world, and a lure toward it. E.g., when I am brave, I effectually assert the aesthetic value – the Beauty – of bravery. When I took that last swallow of hoppy IPA, I effectually asserted the Beauty of hops, of water, of beer – not just for myself in the moment of the swallow, but as an objective matter of fact. When an instant in the career of a particle conserves the momentum of a prior instant of some particle that is peculiarly influential in its own past and in its present constitution, it effectually asserts, and proposes, the Beauty of the good cosmic order furnished by the conservation laws, and urges their obedience by all subsequent occasions. Each instance of the fulfillment of these laws is an effectual assertion of how it is good for our world to be.

Excursus: this is how the heavens tell the Glory of God.

Thus Whitehead showed just how becoming involved all four sorts of Aristotelian causes: material, efficient, formal, and final. The material cause of each occasion is its actual world, the things that in respect to its specific causal locus already are. Its formal causes are the forms manifest in that actual world (including the forms actually instantiated as yet not mundanely, but rather only as Augustinian ideas in the mind of God), as integrated in its own final constitution. Its final causes are the aesthetic values produced in that final configuration. Its efficient causes are the emphases of its causal antecedents upon the Beauty, value, and enjoyment of the various combinations of the forms which they themselves have expressed.

Whitehead employed a lot of terms for the quantum of becoming: actual entity, actual occasion, actual event, concrescence, actuality, final satisfaction, immortal object. He used them interchangeably, depending on whether he wanted to emphasize their process of becoming, their final completion, or their appearance to each other. I have taken lately to calling them “nunc:” now. For, each of them is to itself a now.

Try this Whiteheadian inversion of your natural perspective that you persist substantially from one moment to the next. Try thinking of yourself rather as *reiterating* from one moment to the next, differently, yet smoothly. I bet that you find that it clears up a lot of difficulties, introduces no new problems, and feels about the same as things have always felt. I.e., that it does no violence to the notions you have developed from your own experiences, and accommodates them, all.

11 thoughts on “Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Nunc

  1. The essential properties of a thing are what make it the thing that it is

    No, this is wrong. No group of properties ever adds up to an essence. For example, having a Y chromosome, or having a penis is not actually what makes you a human male. You have to look at the final cause to get the essence.

    • I don’t disagree. But we can take the final cause of a thing to be among its properties – albeit, not its strictly formal properties. And vice versa. The formal specification of a thing is incomplete if it does not account for its finalities; and the final specification of a thing is incomplete if it does not account for its formalities. Consider, e.g., that both a man and a bull have the same sorts of final reproductive causes, albeit under radically different forms. It is not possible to specify their final reproductive causes in such a way as to distinguish them except insofar as one elaborates at least some of their distinct formal causes.

      The final cause of a thing has certain formal causes of its own, in virtue of which it is the sort of final cause that it is.

  2. Pingback: Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Nunc | Reaction Times

  3. I’m afraid I have no novel insights into the problem of personal identity, but I like this quote:

    ““Curious, now, this thing of personal identity! Here I am now, an old man, telling you this story about a little boy; and yet I feel that I am the same person now that I was then.” (Lyman Beecher, Autobiography (1864)

    Lyman was the father of Henry Ward Beecher, the most fashionable celebrity preacher of the nineteenth century, until he became embroiled in infidelity and wasn’t. No doubt HWB wished he could have denied identity with that fellow who ravished his best friend’s wife. In any case, I’m content with LB’s statement that identity is a “feeling,” which in this case means something like a basic belief.

    • Lyman notices the basic mystery: memory. Whitehead treats causation per se as memory. Memory is calling to mind; it is a recollection – literally, a re-together-reading – of an event from the past. Lyman is the same person as his childhood self because he re-together-reads that self. How does it happen? Well, how do things in general happen, at all? Whence happening? We cannot know. This is why Whitehead puts Creativity – the ultimate source of happening – in his Category of the Ultimate, together with Many and One. The Ultimate cannot be comprehended; it is prior even to the axiomatic act; for one cannot stipulate to any (indemonstrable) axiom without prior implicit recourse to the Category of the Ultimate.

      This is why all honest philosophy must end at worship.

      • Locke famously posed the question: might not the thinking substance which thought the thought “I did it” — the genuine thought of agent-memory — nevertheless be a different thinking substance from the one that could have had the thought: “I am doing it” when the act was done? Thus he detached the identity of the self or “person” from the identity even of the thinking being which does the actual thinking of the I-thoughts.

      • Not only memory, but the unique memory of the first-person perspective. The little boy that Lyman recalls was an I, not a he.

  4. Dear Kristor:

    What we discern at the individual level through the intuition of our continuous self-annunciation, we might also discern at the collective level, that is at the cultural level, as the persistence of tradition by inveterate active re-appropriation and transmission. The nunc is, of course, a paradox: We must posit it, but we can never possess it because it is eternally retreating into the past. Even our anticipation of the future immediately retreats into the past.

    Henri Bergson used the term durée to refer to the intuition of one’s identity-through-continuity. His analysis of experience runs in parallel with (and perhaps anticipates) Whitehead’s analysis of experience in many ways.

    For the nonce,


    • Oh my gosh, what brilliant connections to other relatives of nunc! They had never occurred to me. Thanks! They shall be of enormous help in my inveterate neology of new noncewords.

      In the PIE, “new” and “shout” seem to have been denoted by the same sounds, respectively *newo and *neu. Not inaptly: a novel occasion is an announcement, a proclamation, of a new way of being. A nunc is a nunciation.

      Shall I pronounce thee, Tom, the nuncio of the orthospherean Good News? Why not?

      More seriously: every time I investigate the aetymology of a term, I grow more convinced that this advanced metaphysical stuff was well understood by the Proto-Indo-Europeans, because it is all implicit in the structure of their language, ergo in ours. Nominalists will object that all observation is laden with theory: that we interpret reality under certain logical terms in their implicit relations derived from those of our earliest ancestors does not mean that our interpretation is correct. That’s obviously true, but so what? It is also self-refuting; so that it cannot be *absolutely* true. It must be rather only *solutely* true. How on Earth could our Proto-Indo-European forefathers have interrogated or interpreted the world at all except under *some theory or other*? That they had to do this does not entail that they did so dishonestly, or wrongly. Presumably, the categories of thought with which they began their researches into nature were already by then profoundly informed and schooled and perfected by hundreds of thousands of years of pre-linguistic experience, refined by natural and cultural selection, and only then imprinted upon our race; no?

      This all begs the question: what is the orthospherean Good News? This, at least: Babel cannot stand.

      PS: Whitehead and Bergson were familiar with each other; and both reckoned their debt to William James. The three of them together are the archons of what has been called radical empiricism – which tends, oddly and happily, to a repudiation of the suppositions derived from a more facile and superficial empiricism.

  5. It seems to me that puzzling over how individual occasions can retain identity from one “occasion” or “moment” to the next is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. What in our experience corresponds to a “moment”? Since childhood I have been frustrated by the ceaseless flux of things; getting to the end of a satisfying story, and wanting the perfection of denouement to be suspended, or excitedly anticipating Christmas, then finding it had passed like a deflating balloon, tossed on the scrapheap of yesterdays for almost another year.

    The apparent unchangeability of the ceaselessly rotating heavens, or the apparent timelessness of a distant mountain range may inspire a sense of static perfection, but we do not experience such a thing. Nor do we experience quantum states. In fact, isn’t there a principle that precludes the isolation of _any_ sub-atomic moment?

    There seem to be principles of identity that go swirling along in the flow, and the only stability we know is the continuity of such principles. Our own bodies continuously accumulate and discard the stuff of which they are made, but the principle of the self remains. The solid things of the world are mostly nothingness, but these empty vastnesses are sufficient to sustain the continuous flow of “things.”

    The principle of animation, analogous to the principle of a clock, is a confusion. I was once a defence witness in a trial arising out of a demonstration. During the trial, I was asked to comment on scenes from B&W 16mm film footage of the demonstration (It was a long time ago.) It was a disconcerting experience. Scenes which were perfectly clear when the film was running, turned out to be a sequence of blurred images when the film was stopped at certain points. How was it. I wondered, that a clear moving image can be composed of such blurred components?

    There is a wonderful short clip of a series of black blotches on a white background, or so individual frames appear. When you run the clip, you can very clearly “see” a dalmatian walking against a similarly coloured background. (I have not been able to locate this clip. If anyone can tell me where to find it, I would be grateful.)

    Our construction or comprehension of a spoken or written sentence is dynamic. In this process in particular, only movement generates meaning. But the same is true all of our perceptions. Even the most stable objects are presented to our senses as a ever-changing flow of sensory impulses, from which we construct our apprehension of solid and stable external objects. What, then, are these principles that maintain their continuity and cohesion it the midst of the flux?

    • It seems to me that puzzling over how individual occasions can retain identity from one “occasion” or “moment” to the next is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

      Whitehead ended up agreeing. The nunc is the product of the conclusion that individual occasions *cannot* retain complete identity from one moment to the next.

      What in our experience corresponds to a “moment”?

      Experience as such is momentary. *Every* experience is a moment.

      Even the most stable objects are presented to our senses as an ever-changing flow of sensory impulses, from which we construct our apprehension of solid and stable external objects. What, then, are these principles that maintain their continuity and cohesion it the midst of the flux?

      The forms that are therein reiterated. But this is only to say, the principles that are therein reiterated. Your question is, what are these forms, or principles, or properties, or ideas, or qualities, or potentialities, or concepts, or logismoi, as they are variously called? Boiling it down to the radical empiricism of Whitehead et alii, they are the ways that things feel: they are qualia suffered by some mind.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s