A Response to Bonnitta Roy’s “Why Metaphysics Matters”

In a journal entry published to The Pop-Up School on February 4th 2024, Bonnitta Roy introduced the series “Why Metaphysics Matters, A Lively Discussion About Why Metaphysics Matters In Our Current Metamodern Era”. In this article, Roy began to answer the question which I had posed to her a few years ago in this video: Why is Alfred North Whitehead her metaphysician of choice? And why should he be considered the premier metaphysician of the metamodern era? Her answers follow while considering Charles Sanders Pierce and Roy Bhaskar as alternatives,

“The power of Whitehead, over Peirce and Bhaskar, is that he makes his imagination transparent to his philosophical enterprise. By contrast, Peirce was reluctant to ‘pierce through’ his metaphysical veil and realize that he was examining the features of his own mind…Similarly, reading Bhaskar, especially when he is writing about meta-Reality, the astute reader can discern a subtle residue of the realist’s ontological reductionism to his otherwise imaginative and creative foray into speculative philosophy. The point I want to emphasize here, is the truth about all metaphysical truths: at the end of the day, what metaphysics describes is the architecture of the most fundamental interface where mind and raw reality participate—the finely grained texture of our imagination and participation.”

Roy appreciates Whitehead in that his imaginative process is transparent to his reader. Consider a bit of etymology; the word “imagination” comes from the Latin imaginatio, which is the standard Latin translation of the Ancient Greek phantasia. Aristotle’s phantasia is commonly interpreted as the capacity for making mental images, which is distinguished from bare perception and thinking. This etymology indicates the heritage of a self-reflexive property, emphasizing the imagination as a private sphere in modern thought today. Biologically speaking, imagination regards a psychical ability of the human animal. Metaphysically, it encourages considerations on human being as subiectum. Of course, this subject matter has had pervasive consequences, influencing common opinion and, most impressively, informing the structure of our political institutions. Treating the individual human animal as this subject matter has defined the modernization project. Therefore, I am provoked to reckon with Roy’s praise of Whitehead’s “imaginative transparency”. 

Part One

I am sure that Roy praises Whitehead in order to guide her reader from modern metaphysics (perhaps characterized as either rational, real or ideal, or grounded upon subject/object dualism). This is apparent when Roy repeats popular epistemological terms, but couples them with the everyday language of minds and bodies. There may be educational value here, as Roy transitions to the holism sought by many metamodern enthusiasts. Roy argues that minds are not equivalent to subjects and bodies are not equivalent to objects. Rather,

“Bodies and minds of the prior occasion are prehended as perception and memory; while bodies and minds creatively advance as participation and imagination. This means that objective and subjective realities interpenetrate at all “times.” The mental model we create in our heads selects aspects of this processual continuum and categorizes them into a simplistic binary schema where there is a ‘past’ as opposed to the ‘future’ and ‘bodies(objects)’ as opposed to ‘minds(subjects)’.”

Roy’s “of the prior occasion” makes explicit that she is in the realm of metaphysical description. In the Kantian tradition, this realm describes the conditions of possibility. In the worldview promoted by Roy, however, bodies and minds belong to a metaphysical architecture which describes the prior condition for the appearance of the world. Now, it could be argued that even if objective and subjective realities “interpenetrate at all times”, Roy promotes an embodied form of individualist subjectivity. However, this may not be the case. For example, Roy understands that Whitehead does not stop with human being as subiectum. Rather, Whitehead argues that the human experience of love indicates an “external” world phenomenon named “Love”,

“Love, at the universal and eternal scale, manifested as prehension at the local scales, making Love the force of creative advance.”

You might be familiar with this form of reasoning, exercised by Arthur Schopenhauer as well, who argued that the personal experience of one’s will indicates a noumenon beyond one’s experience. Schopenhauer’s reasoning was that willing is a phenomenon that not only shows itself through my body, but in all extended bodies—including non-animal phenomena too. Schopenhauer argues that the world is not merely a psychical presentation, but also Will. Many years ago, I critiqued Zak Stein when he repeated after Whitehead and brought Love into the metaphysical architecture through this same form of reasoning. Whether it is correct to judge this form as an anthropomorphism, I am less convinced at the moment. Rather, what concerns me, when exercising a phenomenological reduction, is that Universal Love does not show itself. If someone were encouraged to diagnose my inability to see this phenomenon as a deficiency, I would be skeptical. I do not understand myself as prone to hypochondriasis and I have not been shown the reason why I should try to access this phenomenon—say, through artificial means such as meditation. Because I lack access to it, I am led to the conclusion that Universal Love is not a phenomenon, but rather an object belonging to the transcendental architecture—however, one which is loaded with value. And because of this, what I suspect is that this object belongs to a domesticative project, not merely a descriptive one. Whitehead, Stein, and Roy offer Love into the metaphysical architecture out of moral obligation. In this case, I question why this obligation presses upon these thinkers and not upon myself. These questions encourage further investigation.

Part Two

Roy praises Whitehead’s imaginative transparency. The word “transparency” regards a literary device; it is also a show of character. Roy praises a certain characterization of Whitehead. This characterization includes a form of, what I have called, apologetic subjectivity. In this case, Whitehead’s imagination can be bracketed and placed in a position to receive challenges. We might say that Whitehead’s apologetic subjectivity disposes him for “intersubjectivity”—to use an ungrounded and confused, yet popular term among some metamodernists. Belonging to this domesticative project, humility is an attempt to receive that which is “other”—that to which one is subjected—and then piece together the parts into a whole. And yet, Roy herself has written against a piecing together of the individuated in an unpublished report titled Open to Participate. I repeated heavily from this report in my How to Nurture Truth and Authenticity. Here is a sample which elucidates Roy’s position,

“We don’t feel lonely in our unique experience, or left out of the ineffable experiences of others. We are already confident that we are completed by others, and that the sum total of human experience resides in the sum total of human experience—that it can never be captured or known by anyone or by any one.”

The “captured” of which Roy speaks directs my attention to the “apprehension” of the often-sought narrative which tells the story of a oneness — of a humanity — a story which appeals to a sense of wholesomeness or belonging. However, if we do not get caught up in knowing another person’s innermost desires (the quest of science and the stuff of science fiction novels) and instead look at the phenomena which present themselves over in experience, then the estrangement of fellow “man” becomes less articulate, if intelligible at all. Beyond the paradigm of knowledge, the obstacle of a me meeting a you disappears. Appropriately, rather than idolizing belonging in her Open to Participate, Roy reverts to the economic language of thriving and flourishing. Nonetheless, the Bonnitta Roy of Why Metaphysics Matters does seem to promote an individualist subjectivity, via her praise of what I have now called “imaginative transparency”. Whether my presumption about Roy can be proven right or wrong depends on her description of the relationship between the universal (in her case, Love) and the local mind/body prehension (love).

Part Three

I should be clear about the understanding in which this reflection has been written: all metaphysical descriptions following Immanuel Kant have attempted to set the limits of experience and description or explanation. In Kant’s metaphysics, this limit regards what can be known: the total appearance of phenomenon, or Nature. The writings of Schopenhauer, Whitehead, and Stein push against that boundary. This occurs when value-laden terms are introduced into the metaphysical architecture, thus creating a parody of metaphysics on one hand and a pseudo-religion on the other. Other philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger (and the Bonnitta Roy of Open to Participate) set aside Kant’s individualist subiectum. Yet, G.W.F. Hegel may be the greater model for what I have previously called unapologetic subjectivity. This disposition contrasts to that which is manifest in imaginative transparency, proving itself to be the greater.

I assume that it is clear to everyone, when Hegel writes the Phenomenology of Spirit, he does so from the disposition of subjectivity. At the same time, we can remember that Hegel’s subjectivity is not Kant’s psychical subiectum. In the Phenomenology, a point comes in the dialectic when a moment of consciousness arises in which it understands the totality of sense-certainty as for “I”. Yet, that “I” does not make a distinction from you. The “I” is as much me as it is you. In this moment of the dialectic, “I” is anyone. The phrase “I see this” simply means “this can be seen”. Remembering A.V. Miller’s translation, we can recall that,

“When I say ‘I’, this singular ‘I’, I say in general all ‘Is’; everyone is what I say., everyone is ‘I’, this singular ‘I’.”

In the history of thought, Hegel first shows us how to rethink subjectivity in terms of “everyone”. Of course, Hegel does affirm Kant’s understanding of the “I” as a subject possessed with Reason. Yet, rather than as an individual trapped in (or totally constituted by a mind or consciousness) the braiding of the “I”, “the other” and the “We” in the Phenomenology challenges us to see knowledge, truth, and beauty as something common and shared—something “objective”. There should be no surprise that Hegel’s philosophy directs subsequent intellectual thought (including psychology and metaphysics) towards a sociological or anthropological form of investigation. I affirm that Hegel gave rise to subsequent sociological thinkers. The Western sociological tradition owes itself to Hegel. This is not limited to Karl Marx, who emphasized that which Hegel had already introduced (praxis), but also includes Martin Heidegger, who finally articulated a transcendental structure of praxis.

Now, I am convinced that Hegel took his imagination quite seriously. At the same time, he made no apology for subjectivity. Hegel is often labeled a Romantic and there is a reason for that. His Phenomenology depicts a declarative narrative of subjectivity—not merely his own—but rather one of objectivity, as it is manifest in Western history. Speaking from the understanding of that objectivity, Hegel is truly authentic. And no one should ask authenticity for an apology.

Of course, to my praise of unapologetic subjectivity, I should also expect a critique—namely, that a romantic adventure such as that of the Phenomenology demands arrogance and a neglect of the other. After all, and anthropologically speaking, Hegel’s subiectum is Heidegger’s da sein—the German-speaking people—specifically, as they belong to European history (that is, world history). At the same time, I recognize that Hegel was not Napoleon. There is a reason why my role model is a philosopher and not a military leader. This should inform you, my reader, of the medium or forum to which unapologetic subjectivity belongs. Yet, this is not all—political activity can also be derived from what could now be called Hegel’s unapologetic objectivity as well.

For example, I acknowledge that glorifying the exotic requires special care, so as not to become an imperial pursuit. Exposing myself to some supposed foreign Black or indigenous people’s perspective can only produce meaning within my understanding—that is, subjectivity. As such, the meaning of that perspective will always involve an appropriation. Any supposed essence in that perspective will be obliterated when appropriated. In this case, my humility and my pursuit of the exotic may produce destructive ends. So, if one chooses to preserve the perspective or project of the Black or indigenous peoples, then ethnic nationalism and preserving tribal communities from contamination may be the only answer. Of course, this solution may strike my reader as quite dramatic. It should. Therefore, here at the close of this article, the question which remains regards the definition (geographical, cultural, or otherwise) where we acknowledge that we have already been speaking within the boundary of subjectivity—thus drawing boundary to the playground where we (that is, those of us in subjectivity) can describe our subjectivity authentically. I am sure that the virtue of authenticity requires boundaries, both to what is and what is not mine. Many totalitarians have understood the answer to this question. Those political pursuits were explored in the early-twentieth century—a dissolution of the many to the one (MLK’s critique of Hegel). Yet, in the Europe of today, these answers may come more easily. Cultural, national, and political boundaries have impressively resisted unification, time and time again. In America, I can only hope that we choose to build that definition afresh. And, repeating that which has been argued before me, multiculturalism does not sustain. Yet, the path of America’s transcultural history has not yet been written. I doubt that it is from the disposition of apologetic subjectivity and its imaginative transparency that it will be accomplished. This history will demand a confrontation with the seriousness and perhaps even cruelty of the possible (Lukas Eidolon). That confrontation will likely come from establishing forums where authenticity can speak unapologetically about its objectivity. I have previously named that subjectivity the project. First economics is the thinking space which treats the project as subiectum.