"Philosophers can never hope finally to formulate these metaphysical first principles. Weakness of insight and deficiencies of language stand in the way inexorably. Words and phrases must be stretched towards a generality foreign to their ordinary usage; and however such elements of language be stabilized as technicalities, they remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap.
"There is no first principle which is in itself unknowable, not to be captured by a flash of insight. But, putting aside the difficulties of language, deficiency in imaginative penetration forbids progress in any form other than that of an asymptotic approach to a scheme of principles, only definable in terms of the ideal which they should satisfy. (PR 4)"
Whitehead opens the second section of this introductory chapter with an acknowledgement of the difficulties before him. The inherent limits of language, limits of our powers of observation, and failures of imagination make our attainment of the goal 'asymptotic,' at best. Mathematicians will especially appreciate this image, which so nicely suggests the impossibility of perfection.
Section II, containing some 14 jam-packed paragraphs, continues a further explication of the four criteria for a successful system of general ideas (coherence, logical consistency, application and adequacy). He takes up the empirical pair (application and adequacy) first, then moves on to the rational pair.
The difficulty one faces rests first with the limits of "the empirical side of philosophy." The empirical side is of paramount importance, but does not fail to place serious obstacles before us. As Whitehead nicely puts it: "The elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought; and the starting-point for thought is the analytic observation of components of this experience. (PR 4)." This is what it's all about, isn't it? It always has to come back to immediate, lived experience. Otherwise, what's the point? So much of academic philosophy falls flat, simply because its relevance to the experience and lives of students hasn't been demonstrated. Recognizing the importance of immediate experience, it should be simple to just observe the world and derive from that observation the key fundamental principles of our philosophy, right?
Unfortunately, strictly inductive reasoning never quite works out in reality, however good it looks on paper. As Whitehead points out here, "we habitually observe by the method of difference. Sometimes we see an elephant, and sometimes we do not. The result is that the elephant, when present, is noticed (PR 4)." But, since the universe never takes a holiday from the first principles we're trying to make out, we can't notice them when they are present or absent. This line of reasoning follows just as well to the special sciences. The point of controlled experimentation is to vary certain factors (make them present or absent) so that we can see what difference, if any, they will make. But, in order to decide what to vary, we need the input of something quite different: the imagination.
"What [Francis] Bacon [a founder of modern science and a champion of inductive reasoning] omitted was the play of free imagination, controlled by the requirements of coherence and logic [the "rational" side of things]." Whitehead famously likens this approach to the flight of an airplane: "The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation." (PR 5).
This is a wonderfully succinct way to envision scientific method. Imagination can supply the difference when only apparent sameness confronts our senses. Imagination stimulates us to interact with, manipulate and look at the world differently, to see if such actions reveal something else going on.
Imaginative generalization is crucial for the progress of science. It is even more so for speculative philosophy, where principles that span and unite disparate special disciplines are sought after. Summing up his remarks on the empirical side of his approach, Whitehead says:
"Thus the first requisite is to proceed by the method of generalization so that certainly there is some application; and the test of some success is application beyond the immediate origin. In other words, some synoptic vision has gained.Whitehead had little patience for those who would deny that any synoptic vision is possible, or for those scientific thinkers would could apply scientific method to a small subset of experience but face the rest of human experience with dogmatic close-mindednes. The way is indeed difficult, but not necessarily impossible; in any case, all of human experience falls within the scope of speculative philosophy.
"In this description of philosophic method, the term 'philosophic generalization' has meant 'the utilization of specific notions, applying to a restricted group of facts, for the divination of the generic notions which apply to all facts.'" (PR 5)
Next time: I'll continue with Section II as Whitehead then takes up the two rationalistic ideals of coherence and logical perfection.