Didier Debaise frames Process and Reality as an essay on method, which is one of the principal influences that Pragmatism exerts on the work (Speculative Empiricism, 7–9). However, since Whitehead only announces his methodological purposes in the first chapter, “Speculative Philosophy,” pretty much every study of the book treats its primary office as “the construction and account of a system of ideas, a complex group of abstract propositions linked together in an organic system” (11). Debaise contends that Whitehead’s originality is not in his system but in his method. Must it not be both? As Debaise explains, the irreversible change in philosophy made by the Pragmatists was to replace the correspondence relation of ideas and reality with a determination of truth through the construction of an idea’s effects. If, as Debaise argues, Process and Reality is primarily an essay on speculative method, then its adequacy must bear out in its effects: namely, the construction of a “system of ideas” that is “able to account for experience.” Indeed, this is part of Debaise’s argument, which is to clarify the relation between the method of speculative philosophy and the system of ideas presented by way of it. “Rather than an account of Whitehead’s system, then, this proposition is a continuation of the speculative method. It describes not general categories but the method’s constraints” (11).
There are five constraints, grouped into two kinds: “the terms ‘necessity,’ ‘logical,’ and ‘coherence’” form “the ‘rational’ constraints,” while “the terms ‘applicable’ and ‘adequate,’” representative of Whitehead’s phrase “every element of our experience,” “determine the ‘empirical’ dimension of the scheme” (11–12; quoting PR 3). To exemplify the radicality of Whitehead’s rationalism within this method, Debaise distinguishes what Whitehead means by “adequate” from “the classical terms of adequation and applicability that presuppose an exteriority in the relation between reality and ideas” (12). For speculative philosophy, adequation means that “all related experience must exhibit the same texture” (PR 4, qtd. on Debaise 12). Whiteheadian adequation diametrically opposes a classical relation of adequation between ideas and reality, since the latter presupposes the sort of difference in texture between “areas of experience” that the former proscribes (Debaise 12, emphasis removed). The “constraint of applicability,” which Debaise rewords as “a constraint of validity,” expresses that “the scheme’s capacity to account for experience has to be permanently put to the test” (13). Again, we recognize the echoes of William James’s radical empiricism, which endeavors to account for every experience, as well as the echoes of pragmatism’s method, which invents ideas and pursues their truth through the construction of their effects.
A contemporary connection is to Nathan Brown’s method of rationalist empiricism, the exhibition of which he focuses on “speculative critique.” Consider how Debaise develops these two groups of constraints: “If the empirical dimension exemplifies an awareness of the relations between ideas and experience, then the rational dimension can be characterised as an economy of ideas in their pure abstraction. No longer used to generalise experience, thought rather accounts for the specificities of ideas as such” (14). Necessity therefore derives “from the relations between ideas” rather than some “first priciple or category from which the others would be derived.” Similarly, Brown characterizes rationalist empiricism as a pair of attunements: one “toward the experience of thinking as included in the field of what happens”; the other “to the power of thought to push the field of facts beyond the presumed synthesis of the past with the future, referring what happens to what has to be thought” (RE 3). Ideas compose a domain of experience, which must be experienced for themselves as they relate to whatever other domains of experience incite them in the first place. As Brown explains in his chapter on Alain Badiou: “the experience of certain sequences both produces and requires heightened forms of rationality (often collective) precisely because they are subtracted from the norms of everyday knowledge that renders such experience irreducible to fact” (201).
Now, the rationalist empiricism of speculative critique differs, I think, from that of Whitehead’s speculative philosophy, though only as two flavors of chocolate ice cream differ: we’re talking about common commitments and approaches put to slightly different ends. Returning to what Debaise says of necessity, I want to highlight a significant resonance between the two theories of philosophical method. Debaise explains of Whitehead’s rational constraints: “Ideas refer to nothing but their own arrangement within a system constituted bytheir reciprocal implications. Only in this way can a scheme be ‘necessary’. […A] successful construction is one that carries within itself, immanently, guarantees of its own universality” (Debaise 14–15.) Thought’s purpose is not to generalize the real, for it is already an area of reality in its own right with its own consistencies and capacities, its own causal efficacy (12). A speculative scheme of ideas endeavors “to account for the particularities of experience” through its relational constructions at the level of ideas. Generalizing particularities contravenes the empirical constraints of Whitehead’s method (adequation and applicability) in that it reduces them to abstract or formal universals (i.e. what Whitehead calls the “sensationalist dogma”). Likewise, Brown says of formalization that it is not a “reduction of the ‘messiness’ of reality. […] It is, on the contrary, the mark of recognizing that it is precisely the chaos of contingent encounters and profoundly unassimilable states of affairs that generates forms of rational discernment to which our habits offer no adequate guide, such that they must be rendered in terms that vary from ordinary language” (RE 202).
I could go on pairing the five methodological constraints in Whitehead’s explanation of what speculative philosophy comprises with Brown’s exploration of rationalist empiricism. However, I will conclude by highlighting what he says of his subtitular philosophical practice, speculative critique, as it relates to this reform of necessity emphasized by Debaise. Developed in a staggering sequence of chapters on Hegel’s Science of Logic and Meillassoux’s dissertation L’inexistence divine (Divine Inexistence), Brown shows how speculative critique counters transcendental critique by refusing its opening presuppositions of the split between a priori and a posteriori and thus its premise of a transcendental guarantee that cognition correspond with empirical phenomena. Specifically as speculative critique manifests in Hegel as “immanent critique,” it is the critique of transcendental critique. Thought is only “rigorously critical” insofar as it “is without transcendental guarantee, insofar as its movement is ungrounded.” An “immanent critique consists in ungrounding such conditions through the elaboration of the rational experience of actual thinking” (RE 83). The speculative philosopher tarries with their ideas, contrasting them through the two constraints of consistency and coherence (Debaise 15; cf. PR 3–4). (“Constrast,” in Whitehead’s technical vocabulary, has its analogue in Hegel’s “dialectical,” since both aim at linking apparently disconnected concepts to form a more comprehensive, self-sustaining movement of experience.)
The speculative philosopher also never arrives at a final system, since success is only ever temporary and requires constant development. (Furthermore, for Whitehead, since thought belongs to the rest of reality, all of which persists only by way of permanent process, the very notion of finality is subordinated to the cosmos’s perpetual relapse into novelty.) And this permanent revolution of ideas motivates the transition from Hegel to Meillassoux, both in Brown’s study and in Meillassoux’s dissertation. Brown argues that Hegel’s speculative critique falters, caught in its idealism, by annulling time in the Absolute Idea. The Science of Logic concludes by retroactively grounding its a posteriori deductions in the a priori (RE 92). It concludes as well by assuming the form of the “I.” “[A]s the concept annuls the temporality of its movement and comprehends itself as Absolute Idea, the ‘I’ returns in the infinite form of ‘pure self-consciousness’” (96). I would rather recommend you read the chapter “Hegel’s Apprentice” than reproduce my own summary of it. Brown excavates a third Absolute (in addition to Absolute Knowing at the Phenomenology’s conclusion and the Absolute Idea at the Logic’s). In the middle of the Logic is Absolute Becoming, which Meillassoux pursues (with Heidegger and Anaximander as his other principal interlocutors) as the necessity of contingency. I do, however, have more to say on how Whitehead’s treatment of becoming diverges from Meillassoux’s and is, in my assessment, the superior of the two.