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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


WHITEHEAD

(1861 — 1947)

 

'PROCESS' PHILOSOPHY

Alfred North Whitehead was born in Ramsgate, Kent, a vicar's son. He was educated at Sherborne School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics and was elected Fellow and lecturer in 1884. He collaborated with his pupil Bertrand Russell on their monumental Principia Mathematica (1900-11). From then on he taught at University College, London, and in 1914 he was appointed professor of applied mathematics at Imperial College. He moved to America in 1924 to take up a chair in philosophy at Harvard. He was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1931, and in 1945 the Order of Merit was conferred on him. His Gifford Lectures, delivered at Edinburgh in 1927/28 were published as Process and Reality — his magnum opus.

 

[Reference numbers for Process and Reality are those of the original standard pagination and which are reproduced in the Free Press corrected edition of 1978.]

 

LOGIC/ PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE

[1] Throughout his career Whitehead was interested particularly in formal logical and mathematical structures, but also attempted to understand the world empirically. In his earliest period he sought (with Russell) to deduce the whole of mathematics from formal logical premisses [a]. At the same time he tried to show that such ideas as space, time, and matter could be used to interpret logical-mathematical concepts in a formal scheme and thereby could lead to a description of the material world in terms of 'ultimate entities'. He initially supposed these to be 'lines of force' — a particle being the field of such a line at a given point. Later he came to define points and lines relationally as total sequences of volumes of particular shapes (for points), or directions of routes of shapes (for lines) which overlap or extend over each other. He called this "the method of extensive abstraction" [see Organization of Thought, ch. 7, and Principles of Natural Knowledge, Pt III]. Objects and events were also to be defined from this joint logical (or theoretical) and empirical basis. Thus, while rejecting analysis of experience into sensory impressions, and ideas of atoms as related in an absolute space and time, he supposed nature could be divided up into events successively extending over each other and characterized by 'eternal objects', that is, patterns or 'forms' in which 'facts' participate [b]. Spatiality and duration are thus not to be considered as 'disconnecting' or a result of distortion of the world by the intellect but as intrinsic to physical objects and derivative from the ways in which things are interconnected [Principles, and Process and Reality, 489-90] [c].

[2] This theory provides the foundation for Whitehead's account of objects. [See Principles and Concept of Nature.] Thus he distinguished (i) sense objects "situated in events"; (ii) perceptual objects (associations of sense objects); (iii) physical objects; and finally (iv) the scientific objects, for example, basic particulars (electrons) [a]. These are unperceived and inferred but are held to account for the properties and relations of the events in which physical objects (through perceptual objects and sense objects) are ultimately situated. What is the status of these 'basic particles'? Whitehead supposed that if they are indeed ultimate constituents of matter, then they might be what he called 'non-uniform'. By this he meant that the events in which they are situated are but 'occasions' lacking duration, continuity being achieved through their 'overlappings'. The physical and perceptual objects on the other hand are uniform in that the events in which they are grounded exist over space and time. Whitehead says further that groups of such objects constitute ever wider patterns expressing the uniformity of nature as a whole — a uniformity which is necessary, in that it is the physical realization of a logico-mathematical formalized system.

 

KNOWLEDGE

[3] [Process and Reality, esp. Pt II, chs V-VII.] Whitehead's theory of perception arises from his rejection of the traditional dualism between subjective secondary qualities (appearances) and objective primary qualities (reality). Whitehead called this an example of "the bifurcation of nature". For there to be a 'sense object' (and hence a perceptual object) there must be (a) a 'situation', (b) 'percipient events', and (c) 'conditioning events'. The percipient event is 'related' to the situation to which it refers through the conditioning events. This account is developed in later writings in the following way. We do not start from the empiricist's sense-data or impressions but from what Whitehead calls 'prehending' entities [ibid. Pt III] which are constantly interacting with the environment, and which we are aware of initially through 'receptive' sensations associated with the body as a whole (through the muscles, our position, etc.) rather than just through our limited sense organs such as sight and touch. He calls this perception "in the mode of causal efficacy". Sensations, including emotional experiences are subsequently brought to full consciousness and projected back into the "contemporary spatial region" of the world" as 'perceptive' sensations: these constitute a later and 'higher' perception at the conscious level "in the mode of presentational immediacy". (He calls the interplay between them 'symbolic reference'.) Both primary and secondary qualities are thus referred back to a common actual occasion as prehending entity [a]. And such sensations may of course not be veridical, because there is a time lag between the two modal stages. [See Pt II, ch. IV, secs VI and VII; ch. VIII, secs I and II.]

 

METAPHYSICS

[4] [gen 4] Many of Whitehead's central ideas on science and perception are utilized in his metaphysics. Indeed these ideas are already themselves implicitly metaphysical, metaphysics or 'speculative philosophy' being "the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted" [Process and Reality, Pt I, ch. II] [a]. (His primary aim in this book was in fact to clarify the meaning of the many categories he postulated in his general 'categorial scheme', namely, the category of the 'Ultimate'; eight categories of Existence, such as Actual Entities or Occasions, Prehensions, Nexūs, Eternal Objects; twenty-seven of Explanation, and nine of Obligations [b]. These are 'real' categories which relate to concrete experience.) The 'forms' or 'eternal objects' are what he calls 'pure potentials', realizable as constituents of events or actual entities at different levels (sense objects, perceptual objects, and so on). Events 'become' and 'perish' over minimal time spans or 'epochs', but because of the 'conformity' to them of successive entities enduring objects are sustainable as permanent features of Nature. Whithead says [Process and Reality, 63-4] that temporal things arise by their participation in the eternal things, the two sets being mediated by a 'final entity' which combines the actuality of what is temporal with the timelessness of what is potential. He calls this the divine element in the world, by which the general Aristotelian principle that, apart from things that are actual, there is nothing 'in fact or in efficacy'. Everything is positively somewhere in actuality, and in potency everywhere [c].

In his later writings [for example, Process and Reality and Modes of Thought ] events and objects are described as "concrescences of prehensions" [d] — unities which as a consequence of their own "processes of becoming" synthesize their relations to other such unities. The progressive sequences of overlapping events form groups of 'actual entities' or 'occasions' (Whitehead calls them 'societies' or 'nexūs'), other in a hierarchical sequence. Moreover, all entities — even down to those at the molecular level — are concrescences of prehensions, manifestations of energy, concrescence being effected by the process of 'feeling' [e]. He uses this term to mean "the basic generic operation of passing from the objectivity of the data to the subjectivity of the actual entity in question" [Process and Reality, 66] — subjectivity being sentient experience. Integration of feeling proceeds to a final unity of feeling, or 'satisfaction', which is the culmination of a concrescence into a matter of fact — all 'indetermination' of an actual entity having been eliminated, that is, its possibilities have been realized. And in so far as we can 'feel' in ourselves this activity in others (implicit in the overlapping of events) we have achieved what he calls 'objectification' or 're-enactment'. Underlying Whitehead's notion of overlapping is a fundamental interrelatedness of occasions. Relations between them are themselves 'eternal objects' which, he says, is shown in "the complex of mutual prehensions by virtue of which those occasions constitute a nexus". And every proposition presupposes a general nexus with an indicative relational system. But for Whitehead relations are both internal and external [f]. His view seems to be, in effect, that if the 'solidarity' of the multitude of actual entities of physical universe is to admit of description, relations must be internal. At the same time, if we are to think of these actualities as individually discrete, relations must be considered to have an external aspect — as bonds between the divided things. [Process 471-2]

This account leads on to the central notion of organism — which Whitehead had earlier defined as a unit made up of smaller structured units, and which is not only extended spatially and temporally but is also a 'functioning' unit, suggesting an unfolding end to be realized or actualized in its purposive process from 'privacy' to 'publicity'. Whitehead stresses further that his concept of organism includes not only living things possessed of mental life but also inert entitites such as stones which may be said to have sentient experience. At the highest levels, especially in the case of man, the totality of the experience gives rise also to consciousness as an aspect of feeling. Whitehead in fact distinguishes three purposive stages, a stage of 'propositional feeling' or 'instinctive intuition' [g] being said to emerge between physical and conscious purposes [427-8]. He supposes himself also to have overcome the Cartesian mind-body dualism, in that he argues for both unified behaviour and consciousness of a unified experience. Although mentality is non-spatial, its is a reaction from and integration with spatial physical experience [165-6]. The 'mind' is also understood as the centre of unifying control [h] — a progressive rise into which can be traced throughout the hierarchy of living organisms [ibid.]. The individual self, it is therefore free activity — the process of shaping this welter of material into a consistent pattern of feelings, which can also control and shape the environment (including its own body). To the extent, however, that the self 'conforms' to that environment and to its own past, it may be said to be determined [i]. There is no absolute freedom; freedom, 'givenness', potentiality, are notions which presuppose and limit each other [sec. 202].

Causation [see also sec. 3.] [Process, Pt II, ch. VIII, secs. III-V.] Whitehead rejects empiricist and Kantian accounts because they locate causation only in the 'mode of presentational immediacy'. This is, however, a later stage of the perceptual process. In fact, he says, our notion of causation arose because man lives amid experiences in the 'mode of causal efficacy'. If we actually look at experience we find that the causal nexus should not therefore be derived from the presupposed sequence of immediate presentations but rather that this perceptive mode gives us information about percepta in the more aboriginal mode of causal efficacy [j]. Thus again the 'gap' or 'bifurcation' between appearance and reality — in this case with reference to causal processes — is for Whitehead overcome, in so far as he seems to be advocating a continuity between different grades of actual occasions; and causation throughout "never for a moment seems to lose its grip".

 

PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION

[5] [gen 5] [Process and Reality, Pt V.] Whitehead extends his categoreal scheme into religion (and indeed also the moral and aesthetic realms). In so far as the functioning of unities may be supposed to involve a drive to a realization of their subjective forms — a process of self-creation — he regards each one as the result of an intrinsic creativity in Nature, and as exhibiting what he calls 'appetition' [a]. God is conceived of as the fundamental "principle of concretion" underlying and at the same time subject to this creative process. Moreover, as actual entities come into being through the realization of 'eternal objects' (forms), so is God's own nature or self-formed, expanded, more fully articulated, and provides the ground (Whitehead calls it God's 'consequent nature') for them to be objectified. God is thus the foundation of the overlapping of events ("extensive connections"), their actualization, and their objectification in others. God seems therefore to be both the single principle of ordering and permanence in the universe (equated with His 'primordial nature') and the ongoing pluralistic process of becoming which is Nature itself [b], but who also provides support for individuality within the organic totality.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

As a 'speculative' metaphysical philosopher Whitehead belongs in the first rank, though his thought goes against the two main tendencies of twentieth century English philosophy — empiricism/ positivism and language analysis. This is perhaps surprising with respect to the latter, given that Whitehead was the co-author with Russell of Principia Mathematica. However, his metaphysics of process is grounded in scientific concepts and is influenced by his work in logic and mathematics. His metaphysics is thus non-idealistic — or, at least, as he put it himself, it might be considered as a transformation of some main doctrines of Absolute Idealism onto a realistic basis [Process and Reality, Preface, viii].

Many critics have found Whitehead's idiosyncratic terminology uncongenial and not a little obscure. (Indeed in this respect we may regard him as the Heidegger of Anglo-American philosophy!) It has been objected also that he is too prone to make assertions rather than to engage in sustained argument. But such a view fails to take account of the primary aim of his speculative philosophy. It has been said also that his use of categories is illegitimate to the extent that they cut across boundaries — being applied indiscriminately to biology, physics, religion, and so on. The notion of 'feeling', for example, is claimed by Whitehead to be exhibited throughout Nature in general. Nevertheless, on the positive side his system is impressive for its vision and scope; for his movement away from the restrictive views of empiricism, 'atomism', and rationalism, to overcome fragmentation and 'bifurcation'; and his attempt to achieve integration of individuals within a network of relationships in Nature. His emphasis on objects as events also constitutes a new way of looking in modern philosophy, which some later thinkers have found stimulating and useful.

 

READING

Whitehead: An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919); The Concept of Nature (1920); Science and the Modern World (1925); Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929; corrected edition 1978); Adventures of Ideas (1933); Modes of Thought (1938). [The last two, together with parts of Science and the Modern World, provide a more accessible introduction to his philosophy.] A good selection of Whitehead's writings is available in Alfred North Whitehead: An Anthology, edited by F. S.C. Northrop and M. W. Gross.

Studies

D. M. Emmet, Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism.

I. Leclerc, Whitehead's Metaphysics.

V. Lowe, Victor Alfred North Whitehead.

W. Mays, The Philosophy of Whitehead.

Collection of essays

P. A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Whitehead

 

[1a] Mathematics derivable from logic? Russell [1a]

 

[1b; see also 1c 4c] Nature understood in terms of events (patterns of eternal objects); rejection of discrete sensa, atoms, etc.

   Plato

   Hume

   Bergson

Russell

[1c 2a]

[1c]

[1a]

[2b e 3b]

 

[1c; cf. 1b] Duration and spatiality intrinsic to physical objects and interconnections; no distortion by intellect

   Kant

   Bergson

[2b]

[1b]

 

[2a; cf. 3a] Objects: sense (situated in events), perceptual; physical; scientific

   Hume

   Bergson

[1c]

[1a]

 

[3a] Rejection of 'bifurcation' of primary & secondary qualities; perceptual knowledge starts from 'prehending' entities not impressions/ sense-data; mode of 'causal efficacy' → 'presentational immediacy'

   Locke

   Hume

Bradley

Santayana

Russell

[2b]

[1c h 2c]

[3b]

[3b]

[3a]

 

[sec. 4] General    Peirce [sec. 3]

 

[4a] Metaphysics as system of general ideas for interpreting experience

   Aristotle

   Hegel

   Bradley

[13a]

[3a]

[3a]

 

[4b] Categories — real, concrete

   Aristotle

   Bradley

[4a]

[2b]

 

[4c; cf. 1b] 'Forms'/' eternal objects'/ pure potentials as constituents of actual entities

   Plato

   Aristotle

[1c 2a]

[13d e 14b c]

 

[4d; cf. 5a] Events as processes of self-formation, objects as 'actual occasions'; (later) 'concrescences of prehensions'

   Leibniz

   Bergson

   Santayana

[2d]

[4a]

[3a]

 

[4e; cf. 4g 5a] Concrescences of prehensions, manifestations of energy through 'feeling' (objectivity to subjectivity — the 'inner')

   Descartes

   Leibniz

   Bergson

[2a]

[2d]

[1c 5b]

 

[4f] Relations internal and external

   James

   Bradley

Russell

[1g]

[1d]

[1e 2a]

 

[4g] Hierarchy of organisms from inert to living; totality of experience in man → consciousness of 'feeling'; 'purposive stages'; 'instinctive intuition'

   Leibniz

   James

   Bradley

   Bergson

[2a]

[1e]

[5b]

[1c 5b]

 

[4h] Mind-body — rejection of substance dualism

   Descartes

   Leibniz

   James

   Bradley

[3g]

[2e]

[2b]

[5c d]

 

[4i] Individual self — free activity yet determined by environment    Bergson [3b]

 

[4j] Causation: 'aboriginal' grounding of causal efficacy; prior to presentational immediacy

   Hume

   Kant

[1h]

[3e]

 

[sec. 5] General    Peirce [sec.3]

 

[5a; cf. 4d] Functioning of unities: process of self-creation (drive to realize subjective forms); intrinsic creativity in nature's appetition

   Leibniz

   Bergson

[2d]

[5a]

 

[5b] God: principle of ordering/ permanence, and pluralistic creative process of becoming; 'expands' as eternal objects realized into actual entities

   Fichte

   James

   Bergson

   Scheler

[5a]

[3c]

[6a]

[3c]