At a basic level, EOs make sense of the conviction that “thought is wider than nature” - or better, that potentiality is wider than actuality. For Whitehead, reality cannot be reduced to the actual, which would imply a static world without genuine novelty or creativity. There would be no unrealized potential in such a cosmos. Some sphere of genuinely real possibility is therefore required to make sense of alternatives, contingencies, the “could-have-been-otherwise.”
This sphere is different from – although continuously interpenetrating – actuality. While actuality is intrinsically agential and determinate, EOs are indeterminate and non-agential (i.e., powerless “quasi-causes”). Borrowing Deleuzian language, Roland Faber therefore likes to say that while the actual exists, EOs insist as transcendental conditions for novelty and creativity. Both are real, but differently. As such, EOs
...answer the question of how the creative passage of…becoming can be a passage that is also creative and still escapes these two pitfalls of mere perpetual perishing into worthlessness, on the one hand, and mere eternal repetition of the Same, on the other. (DM, 139).
More specifically, EOs account for things like sensory qualities (‘redness’), tactile qualities (‘softness’), conceptual abstractions (shapes and numbers), contrasts, relations, patterns, and emotions that differently condition actualities. Without pre-determining anything, EOs uniquely contribute to an entity’s becoming. Although comparable to universals like Ideas, Platonic forms, and predicates, Whitehead denies that EOs are universal essences in any traditional sense. They are not a priori logical structures for the world's particulars, but dynamic conditions for novelty and creativity.
As a radical empiricist, Whitehead argues that concrete actualities are “the only reasons.” As such, one cannot talk about eternal objects as the more ultimate reasons behind things. Actualities are not simply built up out of static universals. And unlike Platonic forms, EOs cannot be encountered outside of actual experience (as in a realm of pure reason or contemplation). As such, Whitehead converts Platonic idealism into radical empiricism. EOs are therefore not the ultimate ground of intelligibility or rationality, for reason/intelligibility refer exclusively to actual experience. This is also a consequence of Whitehead’s further – and deceptively simple – definition of eternal objects:
The first principle is that an eternal object…is what it is (SMW, 159)
According to Stengers, this implies that EOs are singularities that are not primarily defined as “models” or “analogues” for actual entities. In other words: actual entities do not “resemble” the EOs that condition them. If they did, an EO would then be something other than “what it is”, having instead become a model for something other than itself and thus capable of being “characterized on the basis of some of its privileged cases of ingression” (TWW, 211). But even if EOs do remain in some sense transcendent to actuality, Whitehead strips them “of any ‘eminent value’, to which things of this world owe their legitimacy” (TWW, 208).
With this in mind, Steven Shaviro explains the function of EOs as adverbial rather than substantive: they merely express how actual entities relate to one another, rather than dictating what they in fact become. Consequently, EOs are ultimately unknowable and unnamable, as Stengers notes, because “the verbs ‘to know’ and ‘to name’ refer to (sophisticated) modes of feeling, which presuppose the [actual] determination of the ‘how.’” Again: the only reasons are concrete actualities. Stengers continues:
[EOs] are not determinant, but ‘potential for determination.’ They are what determination requires, the definition of the ‘how’ of each feeling, but no particular ‘how’ constitutes a privileged path allowing us to rise back up toward an eternal object…in other words, they explain nothing, justify nothing, guarantee nothing, privilege nothing, especially not intellectual operations in search of abstraction (TWW, 302-303).
This interpretation of Whitehead is not the only one possible, and it is not without difficulties. It foregrounds some of Whitehead’s convictions to make sense of a very difficult concept in his metaphysics, but one can go about this in another fashion. I have relied primarily on Stengers, Shaviro, and Faber’s readings of Whitehead, but even these careful readers of process philosophy admit to some ambiguous statements in Whitehead’s texts that favor a more idealistic interpretation – which I should note has influenced a great deal of process theology (see Gary Dorrien’s idealistic reading of Whitehead in Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit). Ultimately, one’s theological commitments will strongly influence one’s interpretation of Whitehead, whether along idealistic lines or through an empiricist lens.
Having said that, the empiricist reading is intriguing to me, in part because it brings Whitehead closer to Deleuze. In fact, Deleuze implies such a reading of Whitehead in his late work, The Fold, where he relates his concept of the Virtual to EOs. Deleuze opposes the virtual to most concepts of the possible, which tend to function as universal essences that the temporal world actualizes as a sort of pre-formatted blueprint that merely lacks reality. As such, the possible is able to explain reality. But as I have tried to show, EOs are more like the virtual in that they do not lack reality, and they are not universal essences that can be experienced beyond the actual. Thus Stengers notes that, like the virtual, EOs take on differential “modes of ingression” within the actual, so it is impossible for an EO to be “conceived in the image of its actualization” (TWW, 214). On this reading, Whitehead's EOs are less like an eternal model and more like conditioning problems; correspondingly, actualities are creative responses to such problems rather than imitations of models.
In another post, I want to begin to think through the theological implications of this interpretation of EOs. Because Whitehead introduces God as that infinite process that necessarily provides a “place” for eternal objects, one cannot rethink the nature of the possible without also rethinking the nature of divinity.
Roland Faber, The Divine Manifold
Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead
Steven Shaviro, "Eternal Objects" (see also Without Criteria)
Philip Rose, On Whitehead
Gilles Deleuze, The Fold
Gary Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit
AN Whitehead, Process and Reality
------------------, Science and the Modern World