Susan Stebbing on Alfred North Whitehead

Susan L. Stebbing. “Review of Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality.” Mind 39 ([October] 1930): 466–475.

L. (Lizzie) Susan Stebbing (1885 to 1943) was educated privately and at Girton College, Cambridge University, and the University of London, where she obtained an M.A. in Philosophy in 1912. She belonged to the 1930’s generation of British analytic philosophy, and was a founder in 1933 of the journal Analysis. She held a number of academic positions, including Director in Moral Sciences Studies, Girton and Newnham Colleges, Cambridge University; Professor of Philosophy, Bedford College; Principal, Kingsley Lodge School for Girls, Hampstead, London; Fellow of the Royal Historical Society; Visiting Professor, Columbia University, New York; President of the Aristotelian Society; President of the Mind Association. Her major publications include A Modern Introduction to Logic, Ideals and Illusions, Philosophy and the Physicists, and Thinking to Some Purpose.

Mind is a British, academic philosophy journal, currently published by Oxford University Press, founded in the late 1800’s. The journal deals primarily with philosophy in the analytic tradition.

In these Gifford Lectures Prof. Whitehead has given us the “more complete metaphysical study” to which reference was made in the preface to the second edition of The Principles of Natural Knowledge and of which an outline was suggested in Science and the Modern World. The book makes extraordinarily difficult reading. This is not entirely Prof. Whitehead’s fault. A comprehensive metaphysics cannot fail to be difficult, and Prof. Whitehead is determined to avoid the dangers of specialism by including in his Cosmology “all particular topics.” But the difficulty is undoubtedly increased by the obscurity of Prof. Whitehead’s style, by his queer choice of words, and by his failure to provide definite examples elucidating his main conceptions. A further difficulty arises from the fact that Prof. Whitehead has come to hold views inconsistent with his earlier views, which, however, he has never explicitly abandoned. The most important change in his views relates to the fundamental distinction between objects and events. There is a less unintelligible change in his view with regard to the relation of mind to nature. Some indication of the

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reasons for these changes of view might have aided us to see why Prof. Whitehead holds the views that he now holds, and what exactly he takes to be their implications. But there is no such indication.

Prof. Whitehead states clearly in the Preface that the motive leading him to write this book lies in his belief that “the movement of historical and philosophical criticism of detached questions, which on the whole has dominated the last two centuries, has done its work, and requires to be supplemented by a more sustained effort of constructive thought” (p. ix). Accordingly it is his intention “to state a condensed scheme of cosmological ideas, to develop their meaning by confrontation with the various topics of experience, and finally to elaborate an adequate cosmology in terms of which all particular topics find their interconnexions” (p. vi). Such an effort of constructive thought rests upon the assumption that speculative philosophy is both possible and important. Prof. Whitehead’s book can be rightly judged only if it be approached from this point of view. Those who believe that the proper work of philosophy consists in the detailed, critical investigation of particular problems will but waste their time if they attempt to read this book. The first essential is to attempt to understand Whitehead’s conception of the nature and importance of speculative philosophy, to the consideration of which he devotes the first chapter. “Speculative Philosophy,” he says, “is the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (p. 1). He maintains that all constructive thought in the sciences is dominated by unacknowledged speculative schemes. There is considerable truth in this contention. The most dogmatic metaphysicians are usually to be found among the “pure scientists” who frequently profess to repudiate metaphysics. Thus there is something to be said for Whitehead’s contention that the philosopher should attempt to make such schemes explicit in order that they may be criticised and improved. In the present work, however, Prof. Whitehead is concerned to construct his own scheme. He fully recognises that the formulation of such a scheme must be tentative. It would be unreasonable to criticise Prof. Whitehead’s cosmology on the ground that it is neither complete nor final. But we surely have a right to expect that his interpretation of his constructive scheme should be detailed and clear, for only so could it be shown to be adequate to, and applicable to, experience. The exposition, however, is not clear, and it is not detailed but only comprehensive. This combination of lack of detail with comprehensiveness of outlook makes the book impossible to summarise and extraordinarily difficult to criticise. To attempt to do either properly would require a volume of Mind, and would in any case be beyond my powers. I can, therefore, only attempt to point out what appear to me to be

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some of the more important contentions, and to consider the outcome of this “essay in cosmology” in the light of Prof. Whitehead’s earlier contributions to philosophy. Even with regard to this attempt I feel considerable hesitation since I am quite sure that I have often misunderstood what Prof. Whitehead wants to say. The language in which nearly the whole of the book is written is extraordinarily obscure. Prof. Whitehead himself would have but scant sympathy with the complaint that his choice of words is queer and that his expressions are obscure. He insists upon the unfitness of language for the purposes of metaphysics. “Words and phrases,” he says, “must be stretched towards a generality foreign to their ordinary usage; and however such elements of language be stabilised as technicalities, they remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap” (p. 4). Those who, like myself, are unable to make such an imaginative leap are bound to be baffled by his use of such ordinary words as “God,” “feeling,” “valuation,” and sometimes to find whole sections unintelligible.

At the outset Prof. Whitehead lays down as the ideal of speculative philosophy that “its fundamental notions shall not seem capable of abstraction from each other. In other words, it is presupposed that no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the system of the universe, and that it is the business of speculative philosophy to exhibit this truth” (p. 1). This statement is susceptible of two different interpretations of which one would reduce the presupposition to a simple truism whereas the other would involve a highly disputable dogma. According to the former interpretation the presupposition would amount to nothing more than the assertion that anything out of relation to everything else would be not only unknown but also unknowable, and as such would never be the concern of philosophy. So much everyone must grant, but nothing whatever follows from this admission. According to the second interpretation the presupposition would amount to the assertion that everything is in essential relations with everything else. This is equivalent to the assertion that reality is a highly coherent system. The statement, “it is presupposed that no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the system of the universe” would most naturally suggest only the first interpretation; it thus appears obvious. But Whitehead certainly intends it to be interpreted in the second way, and he does not seem to recognise that so interpreted this presupposition requires some justification. On the contrary, his system is based upon it. This system is called “the philosophy of organism”. He declares: “The coherence, which the system seeks to preserve, is the discovery that the process, or concrescence, of any one actual entity involves the other actual entities among its components. In this way the obvious solidarity of the world receives its explanation” (p. 9). To me, at

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least, the “solidarity of the world” does not express an obvious fact. It is, however, this fact which the philosophy of organism is invoked to explain.

Prof. Whitehead seeks “to base philosophical thought upon the most concrete elements in our experience”. For this purpose he selects three notions—”actual entity,” “prehension,” “nexus”. These are the first three of eight Categories of Existence, of which the fifth is “Eternal Objects”. Actual entities and eternal objects are said to “stand out with a certain extreme finality. The other types of existence have “a certain intermediate character” (p. 29). In terms of the first three Categories of Existence he formulates twenty-seven “Categories of Explanation” and nine “Categoreal Obligations”. It is not possible here to refer to each of these. Their bare statement occupies eight pages which even Prof. Whitehead admits to be unintelligible apart from the rest of the book. It must be sufficient to refer only to those to which the most importance appears to be attached. There is a statement in the Preface which suggests the most important notions. “The positive doctrine of these lectures,” says Prof. Whitehead, “is concerned with the becoming, the being and the relatedness of ‘actual entities.’ […] All relatedness has its foundation in the relatedness of actualities; and such relatedness is wholly concerned with the appropriation of the dead by the living—that is to say, with ‘objective immortality’ whereby what is divested of its own living immediacy becomes a real component in other living immediacies of becoming. This is the doctrine that the creative advance of the world is the becoming, the perishing, and the objective immortalities of those things which jointly constitute stubborn fact” (p. viii). To understand the philosophy of organism, summed up in this passage, it is first necessary to understand what exactly is meant by “actual entity,” “prehension,” “nexus,” and “God”. Some attempt must be made to explain these notions.

‘Actual entities’, which are also called ‘actual occasions’, are said to be “the final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real. They differ among themselves: God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far off empty space. But, though there are gradations of importance, and diversities of function, yet in the principles which actuality exemplifies all are on the same level. The final facts are, all alike, actual entities; and these actual entities are drops of experience, complex and interdependent” (p. 24). The complexity of an actual entity is due to the fact that every actual entity prehends all other actual entities, so that an actual entity α is a real component of another actual entity β. An actual

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entity is a concrescence, i.e. a growing together, of diverse elements. It is apparently for this reason that an actual occasion is called an “organism”. [1] By “prehension,” therefore, Whitehead seems to mean the definite way in which an actual occasion α includes other occasions in its concrescence. Accordingly the togethernesses of actual entities are real individual facts, “which are real, individual, and particular, in the same sense in which actual entities and the prehensions are real, individual, and particular” (p. 26). Such a particular fact of togetherness is called a ‘nexus’ (plural form is nexûs). The distinction between a nexus and a prehension is not made very clear, but in the list of the eight Categories of Existence prehensions are said to be Concrete Facts of Relatedness, and nexûs are said to be Public Matters of Fact. Every prehension consists of three factors: (i) the subject prehending; (ii) the ‘datum’ prehended; (iii) the ‘subjective form’. By the ‘subjective form’ is meant “how that subject prehends that datum” (p. 31). When the data prehended are actual occasions the prehension is called “physical prehension”; when the data are eternal objects the prehension is called “conceptual prehension”. Neither form necessarily involves consciousness. Prehensions may also be distinguished into positive and negative prehensions. Positive prehensions are called “feelings,” and by “feeling” is apparently meant “blind physical perceptivity”. Negative prehensions are said to involve “elimination from feeling”. The point of the introduction of negative prehensions seems to be that it enables Whitehead to maintain that every item in the universe is prehended, negatively or positively, by every actual occasion. But his account of negative prehensions is so unclear that I cannot attempt to discuss it.

The doctrine of objective immortality depends upon the conception of “positive prehension” or “feeling”. Whitehead insists that actual entities must not be regarded as unchanging subjects of change. An actual entity is both the subject experiencing and also what he calls the “superject” of its experiences. Thus, “it is subject-superject, and neither half of this description can for a moment be lost sight of” (p. 39). As subject an actual entity is “perpetually perishing”; as superject it is “objectively immortal”. Thus Whitehead says: “An actual entity is to be conceived both as subject presiding over its own immediacy of becoming, and a superject which is the atomic creature exercising its function of objective immortality” (p. 61). This appears to mean that an actual occasion α in perishing is

1 Characteristically Prof. Whitehead nowhere defines “organism,” nor does the word itself appear in the index. As is usual in Prof. Whitehead’s books, the index is quite inadequate and is not free from misprints.

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objectified in an actual occasion β, in that α becomes a constitutive element in the concrescence of β. Thus each occasion is immortal throughout its future, and β has to conform to α. The word ‘objective’ in the phrase “objective immortality” is used in the sense which it bears in the Cartesian phrase ‘realitas objectiva’. The conception of objective immortality results from Whitehead’s fourth Category of Explanation, which he calls the “principle of relativity,” and which he formulates as follows: “that the potentiality for being an element in a real concrescence of many entities into one actuality, is the one general metaphysical character attaching to all entities, actual and non-actual; and that every item in its universe is involved in each concrescence. In other words, it belongs to the nature of a ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming’” (p. 30). The ninth Category of Explanation—called the ‘principle of process’—states, “That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is”; consequently, “its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming’” (p. 31). This qualification of one actual entity by other actual entities is said to be “the ‘experience’ of the actual world enjoyed by that actual entity, as subject” (p. 233). Further, Prof. Whitehead asserts that the philosophy of organism accepts what he calls “the reformed subjectivist principle,” namely, “that apart from the experience of subjects there is nothing, nothing, bare nothingness” (p. 234). This is said to be an alternative statement of the ‘principle of relativity’. From this principle there would seem to follow another principle of which Whitehead makes considerable use, and which he calls the ‘ontological principle’. [2] This is stated in the eighteenth Category of Explanation as follows: “That every condition to which the process of becoming conforms in any particular instance, has its reason either in the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concrescence, or in the character of the subject which is in the process of concrescence” (p. 33). This is said to mean that “actual entities are the only reasons; so that to search for a reason is to search for one or more actual entities”. Whitehead accordingly also calls this ontological principle the ‘principle of efficient, and final, causation’.

The application of the principle of relativity and the ontological principle—and the resultant doctrine of objective immortality—appears to make havoc of the fundamental distinction between universals and particulars, which Whitehead formerly recognised in his distinction

2 It should be observed that the twenty-seven Categories of Explanation are not mutually independent. It is difficult to see why Prof. Whitehead selects just those which he does select.

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between object and events. He now states explicitly his reason for preferring the latter pair of terms to the former. The passage is so important that it must be quoted in full:

The ontological principle, and the wider doctrine of universal relativity, on which the present metaphysical discussion is founded, blur the sharp distinction between what is universal and what is particular. The notion of a universal is of that which can enter into the description of many particulars; whereas the notion of a particular is that it is described by universals, and does not itself enter into the description of any other particular. According to the doctrine of relativity, which is the basis of the metaphysical system of the present lectures, both these notions involve misconception. An actual entity cannot be described, even inadequately, by universals; because other actual entities do enter into the description of any one actual entity. Thus every so-called ‘universal’ is particular in the sense of being just what it is, diverse from everything else; and every so-called ‘particular’ is universal in the sense of entering into the constitutions of other actual entities (p. 66).

This seems to me a great muddle. It is surely extraordinarily confusing to say that a universal is a particular because it is “diverse from everything else”. The recognition of the diversity of universals (or eternal objects) was stated by Whitehead in Science and the Modern World in terms of a principle called “The Translucency of Realisation”. This was said to mean that “any eternal object is just itself in whatever mode of realisation it is involved. There can be no distortion of the individual essence without thereby producing a different eternal object” (loc. cit., p. 240). This principle is not mentioned in the present book; instead we have the statement that a ‘universal’ is ‘particular’ because it is “diverse from everything else”. This statement seems to me to involve a sheer misuse of language. The doctrine now expounded is inconsistent with Whitehead’s former conception of the nature of objects and events. In the Concept of Nature Whitehead says:

Objects are elements in nature which do not pass. The awareness of an object as some factor not sharing in the passage of nature is what I call ‘recognition’. It is impossible to recognise an event, because an event is essentially distinct from every other event. Recognition is an awareness of sameness. […] An object is ingredient in the character of some event. In fact the character of an event is nothing but the objects which are ingredient in it and the ways in which those objects make their ingression into the

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event. Thus the theory of objects is the theory of the comparison of events. Events are only comparable because they body forth permanences. We are comparing objects in events whenever we can say, ‘there it is again’. Objects are the elements in nature which can ‘be again’ (loc. cit., pp. 143–144).

This passage (and others in The Concept of Nature and in The Principles of Natural Knowledge) certainly recognises that there is a fundamental distinction between objects and events. Identity could be recognised amid the diversities of actual entities, or events, because of the ingression into these events of objects which could ‘be again’. Throughout these two books objects were conceived as accounting for identity, repetition, permanence, universality and abstractness. But according to Whitehead’s present doctrine the identity of diverse actual occasions appears to be due to the objectification of one actual occasion in another actual occasion. It seems to be an inadequate description of this doctrine to say that its result is to “blur the sharp distinction” between universals and particulars. It surely involves the denial that there is any fundamental distinction between an eternal object and an actual entity, and is difficult to reconcile with the statement, already quoted, that “actual entities and eternal objects stand out with a certain extreme finality”. It is true that it is not in its character of an immediate, existential entity that an actual occasion is regarded as entering into the ‘constitution’ of another actual occasion. On the contrary, Whitehead is as concerned to maintain that actual occasions are perishing particulars as that they are immortal. He insists that “an actual entity has ‘perished’ when it is complete” (p. 113), and that “its birth is its end” (p. 111). These statements agree with his former view that an event is “essentially passing”. But he wishes now to insist that the actual entity “perishes and is immortal” (p. 113). The perished actual entity is immortal because—as he immediately goes on to say—“The actual entities beyond it can say, ‘it is mine’. But the possession imposes conformation”. But ‘conformation’ is also called ‘re-enaction’ and ‘reproduction,’ and Whitehead makes it clear that what is reproduced is an actual occasion, which, in its capacity of superject, enters into the constitution of other actual entities. Also, permanence is due to reproduction. Thus Whitehead says: “In the world there is nothing static. But there is reproduction; and hence the permanence which is the result of order and the cause of it” (p. 337).

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is conceived as providing a reconciliation of permanence with “the inescapable flux” (p. 296). This reconciliation, according to the new doctrine, seems to be brought about by means of the actual entities themselves. But since as perishing particulars

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the actual entities cannot ‘be again’, or, as Whitehead now prefers to put it, ‘abide’, and yet as immortal they do abide, it would seem to follow that actual entities must now be conceived as capable of taking the place of eternal objects. They are to be made to account for identity, repetition, permanence, and universality. They are also now conceived as sharing with eternal objects the characteristic of being abstract. They acquire this characteristic in becoming objectified. This Whitehead says: “The objectified particular occasions together have the unity of a datum for the creative concrescence. But in acquiring this measure of connexion, their inherent presuppositions of each other eliminate certain elements in their constitutions, and elicit into relevance other elements. Thus objectification is an operation of mutually adjusted abstraction, or elimination, whereby the many occasions of the actual world become one complex datum” (p. 299). It would seem, then, that there is no function performed by eternal objects that is not also performed by actual entities. If this be so, it is difficult to see why eternal object should be retained. But it was just this sharp distinction between objects and events, upon which Whitehead formerly insisted, that seemed, to me at least, one great merit of his earlier Naturphilosophie. Various inconsistencies that were apparent in Science and the Modern World may perhaps be taken as signs that Whitehead, in writing that book, was passing from his earlier theory to his present exceptionally obscure philosophy. Those who have reproached Whitehead for protesting against the “bifurcation of Nature” whilst himself admitting a “bifurcation” of events and objects have, no doubt, reason to be pleased with his latest development of the philosophy of organism. For my part, I have never been able to see that the repudiation of the former doctrine should entail the denial of any ultimate distinctions, and I can only regard Prof. Whitehead’s present position as deplorable.

The denial of the doctrine that Nature is closed to mind is, however, inconsistent with the rejection of the bifurcation of Nature. This at least Whitehead seems to have maintained in his earlier writing, in spite of some obscurities and vacillation in his view with regard to the nature of mind and its relation to passage. [3] It is clear that Whitehead does now deny that Nature is closed to mind. So much was apparent in Symbolism: Its Meanings and Effect. The present work puts the denial in doubt. Prof. Whitehead should, then, now hold that his former protests against “the bifurcation theories” were mistaken. But on this subject he makes no

3 I dealt with this difficulty in an article on “Mind and Nature in Professor Whitehead’s Philosophy,” in Mind, July, 1924.

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explicit pronouncement. Again, the distinctions, once so carefully drawn, between ‘scientific objects’, ‘perceptual objects’, and ‘sense-objects’ would now appear to be worthless in view of his present insistence upon “enduring objects”. Mr. Baithwaite, in reviewing Science and the Modern World [4] pointed out the difficulties in Whitehead’s treatment of “enduring objects”. These difficulties have but become more acute with the collapse of the ultimate distinction between objects and events.

It is not to be supposed that Prof. Whitehead would himself admit that this collapse has occurred. On the contrary, there are numerous passages in which he reaffirms the distinction. But there are other passages in which it seems clearly to be denied. The whole doctrine of objective immortality, as I have tried to show, renders the distinction valueless. That Whitehead himself is unaware of his vacillation on this point seems to be due to his conception of God. In this conception all the difficulties of his philosophy come to a head. God is an actual entity, but he is a non-temporal actuality. Apart from God the eternal objects would be a multiplicity of disjoined bare potentialities. But according to the ontological principle such a multiplicity of potentialities is impossible. Consequently Whitehead makes this multiplicity of potentialities actual by placing it in the non-temporal actuality, ‘God,’ which is then called “God’s primordial nature”. The reconciliation of permanence and flux is called “God’s consequent nature”. Thus Whitehead says, “The primordial created fact is the unconditioned conceptual valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects” (p. 42). Again, “The consequent nature of God is the fluent world become ‘everlasting’ by its objective immortality in God” (p. 491). Thus in God there is combined “creative advance with the retention of mutual immediacy” (p. 489). Through his primordial nature God is ‘the principle of concretion’; through his consequent nature he “saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of his own life”. The relation of God to the world is summed up in seven contradictions, which are said by Whitehead to be “antitheses”. There is truth in Whitehead’s comment: “The concept of ‘God’ is the way in which we understand this incredible fact—that what cannot be, yet is” (p. 495). He seems to have forgotten his own warning that “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse” (p. 486).

Prof. Whitehead’s indefensible usage of language becomes nothing short of scandalous when he speaks of ‘God’. He says that ‘God’ is a term used for “Creativity,” “Aristotelian ‘matter’,” “modern ‘neutral stuff’,” since

4 See Mind, October, 1926.

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“the contemplation of our natures as enjoying real feelings derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that ‘subjective form’ of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim” (p. 43). This statement is odd enough, but when he goes on to speak of God’s “infinite patience,” of God as “tenderly saving the turmoil of the intermediate world,” of God as being “the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness,” we are forced to conclude that the use of the familiar name has beguiled Prof. Whitehead into forgetfulness of the part he has assigned to the non-temporal actuality which he chooses to call “God”. It is difficult to acquit Prof. Whitehead of a deliberate desire to encourage the unclear thinking that is so common with regard to this subject. It is much to be regretted that a writer of his eminence should even appear to lay himself open to such a charge.

The length of this book, the difficulty of Prof. Whitehead’s thought, and the confusion in his expression of it have led me to write a review that is already too long, and yet much that is of the greatest importance has been passed over in silence. This, however, is inevitable. The doctrines I have dealt with are fundamental to his philosophy, so that no part of it can be explained unless these are first understood. This is the case even with regard to the theory of extension, expounded in Part IV, which is the easiest part of the book. By using Prof. de Laguna’s notion of “extensive connection” instead of the relation of “whole to part,” Whitehead has been able to give a more satisfactory account of the method of extensive abstraction. In the short space left to me I must confine myself to calling attention to this improvement, and to pointing out other topics of interest in other parts of the book. Prof. Whitehead has made clearer than he did before the theory of symbolic reference as the interplay between presentational immediacy and causal efficacy. With regard to Locke and Hume he has much to say that is illuminating and important, and upon which I should like to have been able to comment.

If one attempts to consider the book as a whole one is faced with the problem of its significance. That it is obscure no one can doubt. That it is worth pondering I am convinced. Whether it is the product of thinking that is essentially unclear but capable of brief flashes of penetrating insight; or whether it is too profound in its thought to be judged by this generation, I do not know. Reluctantly I am inclined to accept the first alternative.

SOURCE: “Review of Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality,” in Creativity and Its Discontents: The Response to Whitehead’s Process and Reality, edited by Alan Wyk and Michel Weber (Walter De Gruyter, 2009), pp. 57-67.

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Chapman, Siobhan. Susan Stebbing and the Language of Common Sense. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

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