[I wrote this in January 2010, and decided to upload it to see if anyone has any comments. As a sculptor, I'm very interested in objects, of course. What is an object, though, has perplexed philosophers for thousands of years. I'm still in my formative phase of trying to figure it out myself!]
Something is concrete if it materially or physically exists. There is something dull about the concept; perhaps it is because the word concrete also refers to a mundane building material. Ironically, the “building material” definition dates only from the mid-19th century, having formerly been a conceptual term. The concretely existing object seems stuck. Perhaps this is what compelled Plato to come up with the Forms, to give the concrete object a deeper life. After writing, and thinking about the rest of this essay, a thought came to me that perhaps clarifies the situation. If one can image a wood panel panel with daubs of color on it, we have a concrete object. But if we determine that this wood panel daubed with color (sitting in the Louvre, let us say) is the Mona Lisa, then we have a concrete object that is linked to a universe of meaning through modification.
One of the concepts that interests me most is potentiality. Mona Lisa began as a tree (to be made into panels) and minerals (to be made into paint). There was an inherent potential in these materials to become unified as a painting. The idea of potentiality is prevalent in Alfred North Whitehead’s cosmology. The universe is a place where things happen. New things spring up as if by magic. There is an innate teleology in his theories, which makes sense since he feels that everything originates from God. But it is my understanding that Whitehead’s God is not the Great Administrator in the sky, but has created a universe that encourages the development of novelty. Whitehead’s God, unlike Plato’s Demiurge, so it seems, is a creator who wants His creation to keep on creating. So, the potential for novelty in a Whiteheadian universe is due to God’s intention not to control, but to make a place where possibilities are unbounded. Whitehead’s theories describe a universe that is a celebration of creativity. There are various theological theories, incidentally, that state that God did not have to make the universe (apparently if His mood was not good at the time) but it is inherent in God’s nature to make the universe. Thus, it was a kind of artistic compulsion.
Whitehead’s Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness is a criticism of the Cartesian duality of mind and matter. Because of a multiplicity of possible percipients, one cannot say that that an object or occurrence does not exist (or did not occur) because a particular individual did not witness it. In other words, a tree falling in the forest does make a sound even if no one is there to hear it. Reality is independent of human consciousness.
Plato does not argue against the concreteness of physical objects, at least in my understanding of what I have read. His point is that they are a poor rendering of what they ought to be. Only the Form is perfect. The Form, however, is eternal, and for something to exist in our world, it has to exist in Time. Time, then, is a kind of flaw, or something that we have to accept in order to live in the world the Demiurge has created for us. We are not divine, yet have been given an “invitation to the party” like Cinderella, so that we may partake in the goodness of creation. After all, for Plato it was the idea of the Good that started the universe. Plato’s and Whitehead’s cosmologies are in many ways similar, and at their most poetic and beautiful they extol the divine’s love of, and for, creativity because it is good.
The beauty of Whitehead’s theory, hence the process in Process Philosophy (this was not his term, however, he called it the Philosophy of Organism) is that everything is ongoing. From a personal standpoint, since Plato was notoriously suspicious of artists, I find Whitehead to be liberating because he celebrates the creation of new things. Plato’s Forms are perfect, the final word on how a craftsman should fashion a bed. Whitehead’s Eternal Objects are similar to the Platonic Forms, but act as pure potential, as guides to inform, not constrain.