Are We Really Related?

Are We Really Related?

By   |  Jan. 8, 2015

Each Section in the “Seizing an Alternative” conference launches with a plenary lecture focused on one aspect of Whitehead’s thought particularly relevant to the tracks in that Section. Franz Riffert is the plenary speaker for Section VIII with a lecture titled, “Are We Really Related?” and will discuss the topic of this post.  


In one sense we know that we are connected.  On the other hand, our usual ways of thinking lead us to something that falls short.  We know we are connected to our children.  We feel the connection deeply.  But when we describe it, we usually talk about emotions that remain fully within ourselves.  They don’t really explain the connection.   Do other people really make a difference in our lives, or is it only our ideas about them that make a difference?

When we sought an image of how we are really connected we picked up on the aspen trees.  They seem separate but are in fact one organism.  But if we ask about “pando’s” relation to other aspen groves, or even to the soil in which it flourishes, it seems once again to be quite distinct.  These relations do not seem to be real. If there can be real connection sonly among parts of a single entity, we are still left with a disconnected world.  Are there no real connections between really distinct entities?

Whitehead shows us that as long as we get our basic ideas about what is most real from our sense experience of an external world, we will not be able to explain real connection.  We see patches of color.  Two patches may adjoin one another, but this spatial contact is not a real relation.  The colored book and the colored table remain quite separate.  The book happens to be on the table.  But I can put it back in the book case.  Its having been on the table does not seem to matter.  It is the same book it was before it was there.  In other words that kind of spatial connection does not really affect it.

Is there another kind of relation that does make a real difference?  Whitehead says “Yes.”  But to understand that relation we have to think of a different kind of entity.  Instead of taking the object of vision as the key to what is actual, we need to thinking of the act of seeing as what is really actual.  Or, better still, we need to find the model of what is actual in the whole experience of which the seeing is a part.   In this case, then, the patch of color is really related to the experience that includes the seeing.  The experience would not be what it is apart from that patch of color.

We now confront a different problem.  The relationship is of the patch of color to the experience is one of inclusion.   But what is included is simply part of the experience.  It does not relate the experience to anything other than its own parts.  What we are seeking is a relation to something other that is nevertheless a real relation.  We think of ourselves as seeing a book that has its own reality whether we see it or not.  But when we examine what we see more carefully, we end up with a patch of color that is part of our own experience.

Or so we have been told by most empiricists and phenomenologists.  But is this the case?  Is our sense that we are seeing something external to ourselves a complete illusion?  Whitehead thinks not.  He is a radical empiricist, and that means that he examines the whole of experience and does not limit experience to sense experience and what can be derived from it.  Radical empiricists believe that the picture of experience as a whole as built out of the clear deliveries of sense experience is quite unreal. We should pay close attention to parts of experience that are rarely noticed.

For example, notice that you have no sense experience of the past.  Hence, if we construct a world out of sense experience, that world is entirely present.  Any belief that there have been earlier experiences must be an inference from the present experience.  Does this correspond with your actual present experience?

How can you decide that?  If your belief that there have been previous events is an inference, it should be possible to imagine that your inference is wrong.  Try it.  Try imagining that this moment is the first there has ever been, the absolute beginning or, perhaps, all there is.  I think you will not succeed.  You know that there have been previous experiences.  You cannot doubt that because you actually experience the past.  Of course, you do not see or touch it.  But that it has occurred is part of your present experience.

I am not speaking of remembering or recollecting in the usual sense.  It is possible to think in some instances, at least, that some of your memories are constructions in the present.  I am asking you to focus on the immediate past.  At the moment that you hear the concluding note in a musical phrase, you hear it as the concluding note.  You are not recalling that there were earlier notes and constructing the phrase from these recollections.  The earlier hearing is still resonating at the time you hear the conclusion of the phrase.  If it were not so, there could be no music.

This means that past experience, especially the immediate past, participates is making the present experience what it is.  The present experience is really related to that past.  But this is not a relation of part to whole.  The past experience was what it was independently of the present experience.  In experiencing that past, we are really experiencing something other.

This kind of real relation is not limited to this instance.  You can identify it quite clearly in the relation of your personal experience to your body.  If you have a tooth ache you can distinguish your experience from what is occurring in your tooth, but you have no doubt that what is happening in your tooth participates in making your experience of what it is.

Whitehead calls your feeling of your own past and of events in your body “physical feelings.”  They are also causal feelings.  You feel your past experience and the events in your body as informing your present experience.

Now back to the book.  You are in fact very sure that the book really exists independently of your experience.  It is a part of the real world in which you live.  Somewhat less vividly than we experience the past and our bodies, we feel the causal reality of the real world of people and other entities.   Physical feelings are foundational to our whole experience.  In normal circumstances, I see the patch of color there because events in that region are reflecting light to my eyes.  This leads to my experience of the patch.  I experience the patch as a book because of the physical feelings that give rise to it.  Normal sensory experience is a synthesis of the causal or physical feeling and the colors or other qualities that are consciously perceived.

What does this have to do with education?  A great deal.   When educators focus on the world of sense experience and the consciousness to which this gives rise, they tend to see education as adding information to what is conscious and can be consciously recalled.  This is, of course needed.  But in this context what the student learns is in danger of being what Whitehead calls “inert ideas.”

Whitehead shows us the importance of what in popular parlance are sometimes called “vibes.”  Learning takes place in experience that is the synthesis of real relations — to the personal past, the body, and the wider world.  In the classroom these relations are especially to fellow students.  Often of special importance are the student’s “physical feelings” of the teacher.   These” vibes” open or close the student to new information and its real relevance.  The physical feelings, derived from this entire environment, shape the way in which ideas are incorporated.  What the student learns is no more important than how the student learns it.  In a healthy context the ideas enter into the integration, being informed by all the real relations and affecting them.  Much of the actual learning takes place below the level of clear consciousness.  And sensitive teachers relate to students according to the “vibes” they get in that relation.

Finally, it is clear that “compassion” is fundamental not only to human relations but also to the whole world.  “Compassion” is “feeling with.”  “Physical feelings” can also be called “conformal feelings.”  They are the way that feelings in one moment are transmitted to and reenacted in the next moment.  This is also what gives reliability to the physical world.  To teach “compassion” is to free people from all that blocks their deepest feelings, to open people to what is there to be felt.  It is both the basis and the culmination of teaching.

Members of the Pando writing team include Rich Binell, Alexi Caracotsios, Amy Goldberg, Rebecca Schmitt, and Eugene Shirley.

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