Monday, May 7, 2012

Project Whitehead: Chapter I, Section II

(New readers, check this out first.)
"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.

"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)
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.

Next time: I'll continue with Section II as Whitehead then takes up the two rationalistic ideals of coherence and logical perfection.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Where have five years gone?

Amazingly, five years (almost) have elapsed since I last posted to this project.  Notes have been lost or misplaced, and time has done it's usual work.  Still, looking back at what I started in 2007, I remain intrigued by Whitehead and the possibilities of this project.  It seems that I'm still interested, although I'm even further from academia and scholasticism than before, and even more steeped in other ways of looking at the world.

So, to begin again.  I am tentatively planning to pick up the threads once more, as time allows (So many creative projects, so little time!), and we will see how far it runs.  Luckily, there are no deadlines! (Except, of course, death, the ultimate deadline.)

I'm pleased, I guess, to note a fairly steady (but small) flow of visitors to this site.  I haven't analyzed the source of this web traffic, but I suspect my visitors are students searching for material for their coursework (the dreaded term papers, and so on).  So I think a little reminder about academic honesty is in order.

The gist of it is: cite your sources and use quotation marks were appropriate.  Please don't aggravate your professors by making them hunt for plagiarism.  Dishonesty in any form is bad karma.

With that said, time to pick up the book and dive in ...

 As before, read this first to get an overview and introduction to the project.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Project Whitehead: Chapter I: Speculative Philosophy, Section I

(New Readers please read this first.)

"This course of lectures is designed as an essay in Speculative Philosophy. Its first task must be to define 'speculative philosophy,' and to defend it as a method productive of important knowledge.

"Speculative Philosophy 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. By this notion of 'interpretation' I mean that everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme. Thus the philosophical scheme should be coherent, logical, and in respect to its interpretation, applicable and adequate. Here 'applicable' means that some items of experience are thus interpretable, and 'adequate' means that there are no items incapable of such interpretation." (PR 3)

With these words, Whitehead begins his essay. He identifies his project as an exercise in "Speculative Philosophy," describes what that should entail, and defends it as a worthwhile activity.

The criteria for a successful "system of general ideas" are four in number: These are coherence, logical consistency, application and adequacy.

"The term 'logical' has its ordinary meaning, including 'logical' consistency, or lack of contradiction, the definition of constructs in logical terms, and the exemplification of general logical notions in specific instances, and the principles of inference. It will be observed that logical notions must themselves find their places in the scheme of philosophic notions." (3)
Whitehead, as a mathematician, presents the criterion of logical consistency in a fairly straightforward manner, including inductive logic (inference) as well as deductive logic in his description.

By "applicable," Whitehead means that various items in our experience are interpretable by the system of ideas. Applicability requires that the speculative endeavour must have some bearing and relevance to real life. "Adequacy" takes it several steps further and "means that there are no items incapable" of interpretation by the speculative scheme. Clearly, Whitehead is aiming high.

Coherence is perhaps the most important and crucial criterion outlined at this early stage. He describes it in this way:
"'Coherence,' as here employed, means that the fundamental ideas, in terms of which the scheme is developed, presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless. This requirement does not mean that they are definable in terms of each other; it means that what is indefinable in one such notion cannot be abstracted from its relevance to the other notions. It is 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. This character is its coherence." (3, emphasis mine)
What Whitehead is expressing here is a clear ecological mandate, in the sense that all parts of the speculative scheme, and indeed all parts of the universe, are connected -- interdependent -- with each other. It is not simply a case of building up some parts from others, or equating one part to a sum of some others. Rather there is a more intrinsic connection to be found. Compare this short description of coherence with the John Locke passage that Whitehead previously identified as so important. In particular, review Locke's closing statement:
"This is certain: things, however absolute and entire they seem in themselves, are but retainers to other parts of nature for that which they are most taken notice of by us. Their observable qualities, actions, and powers are owing something without them; and there is not so complete and perfect a part that we know of nature which does not owe the being it has, and the excellencies of it, to its neighbours; and we must not confine our thoughts within the surface of any body, but look a great deal further, to comprehend perfectly those qualities that are in it."
Whitehead is building upon Locke's intuition that things are never entire and absolute all by themselves. Locke gives examples from among the realm of mineral objects (gold, for example), from plants and from animals. Locke further describes how crucial the sun is for life on Earth, even though it is a seemingly distant and remote body. The progress of science in the 300 years since Locke's writing has divulged a goodly amount of the secrets that were so mysterious to seventeenth century onlookers. This scientific progress has disclosed one thing above all else: apparently discrete entities are tightly interconnected with each other and with their surroundings. This holds true for chemical entities (think, for example, something so simple as free oxygen gas in the atmosphere) and even more so for living entities. The gravitational attraction among masses demonstrates important connections between celestial bodies. Such masses even affect the behavior of light. Modern physics discloses many more subtle and not so subtle interactions.

Why does Whitehead bother to reiterate what may seem to many to be an obvious fact of the universe? Because so many of us, whether trained philosophers or not, blithely continue on as if this ecological essence wasn't the case. It will be interesting to see how Whitehead carries through on his idea of coherence as the book unfolds.

Section I concludes with a categorization of these four criteria (coherence, logical consistency, adequacy and applicability) into two "sides:" the rational side, and the empirical side. Whitehead places coherence and logic on the side of the rational, and applicability and adequacy on the side of the empirical. He sees these sides as united in one whole (hence his use of the term 'side'). They are connected through a deeper understanding of the term 'adequate:'
"The adequacy of the scheme over every item does not mean adequacy over such items as happen to have been considered. It means that the texture of observed experience, as illustrating the philosophic scheme, is such that all related experience must exhibit the same texture. Thus the philosophic scheme should be 'necessary,' in the sense of bearing in itself its own warrant of universality throughout all experience, provided that we confine ourselves to that which communicates with immediate matter of fact. But what does not so communicate is unknowable, and the unknowable is unknown; and so this universality defined by 'communication' can suffice.

"This doctrine of necessity in universality means that there is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality. Speculative philosophy seeks that essence." (3)
If at this point you are thinking that Whitehead has set him self an impossible task, you may be on to something. His claims are bold: The universe is both rational and knowable, insofar as it reveals itself to human experience. Whitehead wants to capture that essence, in general terms, in the space of some 351 printed pages. Can it be done? Should any self-respecting philosopher even attempt such a thing? Perhaps Whitehead was fortunate to have been trained originally as a mathematician, and not as a philosopher.

Friday, August 10, 2007

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, Chapter 6, Section 11

(New Readers please read this first.)

John Locke, a groundbreaking English philosopher of the 17th and early 18th centuries, published his Essay Concerning Human Understanding at the end of 1689. It was the product of some twenty years of discussion, reflection and writing. This book has had a tremendous influence on the history of Western philosophy, and, have we have seen in his Preface, it was of special influence to Whitehead. Here, I quote in full the section that Whitehead cites as providing the inspiration for his philosophy of organism. In reading Locke's passage, we get a strong sense of what Whitehead considered to be of central importance when working out his thoughts.

Without further ado, here is the passage:

"Had we such ideas of substances as to know what real constitutions produce those sensible qualities we find in them and how those qualities flowed from thence, we could, by the specific ideas of their real essences in our own minds, more certainly find out their properties and discover what qualities they had or had not, than we can now by our senses; and to know the properties of gold, it would be no more necessary that gold should exist and that we should make experiments upon it than it is necessary, for the knowing the properties of a triangle, that a triangle should exist in any matter: the idea in our minds would serve for the one as well as the other. But we are so far from being admitted into the secrets of nature that we scarce so much as ever approach the first entrance towards them. For we are wont to consider the substances we meet with, each of them, as an entire thing by itself, having all its qualities in itself and independent of other things, overlooking, for the most part, the operations of those invisible fluids they are encompassed with and upon whose motions and operations depend the greatest part of those qualities which are taken notice of in them and are made by us the inherent marks of distinction whereby we know and denominate them. Put a piece of gold anywhere by itself, separate from the reach and influence of all other bodies, it will immediately lose all its colour and weight, and perhaps malleableness too, which for aught I know, would be changed into a perfect friability. Water, in which to us fluidity is an essential quality, left to itself, would cease to be fluid. But if inanimate bodies owe so much of their present state to other bodies without them that they would not be what they appear to us were those bodies that environ them removed, it is yet more so in vegetables, which are nourished, grow, and produce leaves, flowers, and seeds in a constant succession. And if we look a little nearer into the state of animals, we shall find that their dependence as to life, motion, and the most considerable qualities to be observed in them is so wholly on extrinsical causes and qualities of other bodies that make no part of them, that they cannot subsist a moment without them: though yet those bodies on which they depend are little taken notice of, and make no part of the complex ideas we frame of those animals. Take the air but a minute from the greatest part of living creatures, and they presently lose sense, life, and motion. This the necessity of breathing has been forced into our knowledge. But how many other extrinsical and possibly very remote bodies do the springs of those admirable machines depend on, which are not vulgarly observed or so much as thought on; and how many are there which the severest inquiry can never discover? The inhabitants of this spot of the universe, though removed so many millions of miles from the sun, yet depend so much on the duly tempered motion of particles coming from or agitated by it that, were this earth removed but a small part of that distance, out of its present situation, and placed a little further or nearer that source of heat, it is more than probable that the greatest part of the animals in it would immediately perish: since we find them so often destroyed by an excess or defect of the sun's warmth, which an accidental position, in some parts of this our little globe, exposes them to. The qualities observed in a loadstone must needs have their source far beyond the confines of that body; and the ravage made often on several sorts of animals by invisible causes, the certain death (as we are told) of some of them by barely passing the line or, as it is certain of others, by being removed into a neighbouring country, evidently show that the concurrence and operation of several bodies, with which they are seldom thought to have anything to do, is absolutely necessary to make them be what they appear to us and to preserve those qualities by which we know and distinguish them. We are then quite out of the way when we think that things contain within themselves the qualities that appear to us in them; and we in vain search for that constitution within the body of a fly or an elephant upon which depend those qualities and powers we observe in them. For which perhaps, to understand them aright, we ought to look not only beyond this our earth and atmosphere, but even beyond the sun or remotest star our eyes have yet discovered. For how much the being and operation of particular substances in this our globe depend on causes utterly beyond our view is impossible for us to determine. We see and perceive some of the motions and grosser operations of things here about us, but whence the streams come that keep all these curious machines in motion and repair, how conveyed and modified, is beyond our notice and apprehension; and the great parts and wheels, as I may so say, of this stupendous structure of the universe, may, four aught we know, have such a connexion and dependence in their influences and operations one upon the other, that perhaps things in this our mansion would put on quite another face and cease to be what they are, if some one of the stars or great bodies incomprehensibly remote from us should cease to be or move as it does. This is certain: things, however absolute and entire they seem in themselves, are but retainers to other parts of nature for that which they are most taken notice of by us. Their observable qualities, actions, and powers are owing something without them; and there is not so complete and perfect a part that we know of nature which does not owe the being it has, and the excellencies of it, to its neighbours; and we must not confine our thoughts within the surface of any body, but look a great deal further, to comprehend perfectly those qualities that are in it."

I won't comment too much on this dense thicket of words just yet (yes, it was written as one paragraph!), other than to remark how clearly Locke presages an ecological point-of-view in this passage. The ecological view will be central to Whitehead's cosmology.

I'll be referring back to this passage and other relevant passages in Locke's book as we progress.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Project Whitehead: Process and Reality, the Preface

(New Readers please read this first.)

"Disciples should be on their guard against the seductions of words and sentences and their illusive meanings, for by them the ignorant and dull-witted become entangled and helpless as an elephant floundering about in the deep mud." - the Buddha, in the Lankavatara Sutra.

The obvious place to begin, is ... the beginning. Thus, our examination of Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality will start with his preface. The preface of a work such as this should never be overlooked. If you are my age or younger, then you will barely recall an era when writing was a more linear process than it typically is now. Of course, there have always been revisions, insertions, rearrangements and recombinations, but once upon a time, an author typically started at the beginning and continued ad seriatim to the end. The preface, however, was typically written last, well after the completion of the main work.

An author's preface, then, often represents his or her latest thinking on the ideas presented in the book. It provides the author's own opinion and summary of his work. It gives clues as to what she really thinks is important -- to what he or she really wants the reader to pay attention. The preface may even occasionally contain improved language used to explain some of the big ideas found in the main work.

Whitehead's own preface to Process and Reality (Process and Reality will hereinafter be referred to as "PR") is short, but nonetheless covers much of this expected ground. In this section Whitehead describes his project in outline, indicates his primary influences, both antecedent and contemporary, outlines nine "habits of thought" or "myths" that PR seeks to repudiate, and gives the reader "four strong impressions" that come to his mind as he surveys his completed treatise. I will look at each of these aspects of the Preface in turn.

The following Preface quotes are taken from pages xi through xv of the Griffin/Sherburne edition of PR.

Whitehead begins:

“These lectures are based upon a recurrence to that phase of philosophic thought which began with Descartes and ended with Hume. The philosophic scheme which they endeavour to explain is termed the 'Philosophy of Organism.' There is no doctrine put forward which cannot cite in its defence some explicit statement or another of one of this group of thinkers, or of one of the two founders of all Western thought, Plato and Aristotle. But the philosophy of organism is apt to emphasize just those elements in the writings of these masters which subsequent systematizers have put aside. The writer who most fully anticipated the main positions of the philosophy organism is John Locke in his Essay, especially1 in its later books.”

Immediately, Whitehead seeks to place his ideas into the stream of Western thought, with particular attention to the early modern era, and to that important chapter in modernism extending from the work of Rene Descartes to David Hume. He indicates his belief that all Western philosophy should be thought of as the offspring of Plato and Aristotle, and he signals the importance of John Locke's Essay on Human Understanding for what follows. While Whitehead's speculative scheme and its later intellectual descendants are usually termed "process philosophy" today, Whitehead himself describes his project as the "philosophy of organism." Throughout this examination of PR, we should endeavor to keep in mind a consideration of why Whitehead chose this name, and what the significance of the notion of "organism" has for his thinking.

Whitehead goes on to describe the organization of the book into five parts:

Part I ("The Speculative Scheme") will consist of an explanation of the author's philosophical method and a summary statement of scheme of ideas that forms the superstructure for the book.

Part II ("Discussions and Applications":) is where “an endeavour is made to exhibit this scheme [outlined in Part I] as adequate for the interpretation of the ideas and problems which form the complex texture of civilized thought. ... a careful examination of their exact statements disclosed that in the main the philosophy of organism is a recurrence to pre-Kantian modes of thought.”

Here, Whitehead reveals a little more on where he stands vis-a-vis the early modern writers he references. In particular, we see that Whitehead is engaging in a serious revision, if not repudiation, if certain Kantian conclusions. He continues:

“In the second part, the discussions of modern thought have been confined to the most general notions of physics and biology, with a careful avoidance of all detail. Also, it must be one of the motives of a complete cosmology to construct a system of ideas which brings the aesthetic, moral, and religious interests into relation with those concepts of the world which have their origin in natural science.”

The importance of encompassing all aspects of human experience is highlighted here. Whitehead will have quite a bit more to say about this as the work unfolds.

Parts III and IV ("The Theory of Prehensions" and "The Theory of Extension," respectively) are where “... the cosmological scheme is developed in terms of its own categoreal notions, and without much regard to other systems of thought. ... The lectures are intended 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 interconnections.”

Once again, Whitehead emphasizes that the purpose of speculative philosophy should be to unite all aspects of human experience into a cohesive and adequate whole.

At this point in his Preface, Whitehead pauses to acknowledge his indebtedness to “the English and American Realists,” for example, Professor T. P. Nunn. He also explicitly references Henri Bergson, William James and John Dewey, as well as the absolute idealist, Bradley. Quite a bit more will need to be said about these contemporaries and near antecedents, with which Whitehead has much in common.

Part V ("Final Interpretation") “... is concerned with the final interpretation of the ultimate way in which the cosmological problem is to be conceived. It answers the question, What does it all come to? In this part, the approximation to Bradley is evident. Indeed, if this cosmology be deemed successful, it becomes natural at this point to ask whether the type of thought involved be not a transformation of some main doctrines of Absolute Idealism onto a realistic basis.”

As we shall see, in many ways the final chapters of PR are the most interesting, in regard to the ultimate implications of Whitehead's scheme. It is at this point of the book that Whitehead deals most explicitly with religious and spiritual questions and the nature of God, as he sees it.

Having concluded his summary outline of the work, Whitehead next lays out a very interesting list of “prevailing habits of thought” which he repudiates, “in so far as concerns their influence on philosophy:”

Quoting Whitehead directly, the list is:

  1. The distrust of speculative philosophy.
  2. The trust in language as an adequate expression of prepositions.
  3. The mode of philosophical thought which implies, and is implied by, the faculty-psychology.
  4. The subject-predicate form of expression.
  5. The sensationalist doctrine of perception.
  6. The doctrine of vacuous actuality.
  7. The Kantian doctrine of the objective world as a theoretical construct from purely subjective experience.
  8. Arbitrary deductions in ex absurdo arguments.
  9. Belief that logical inconsistencies can indicate anything else than some antecedent errors.

Whitehead claims that "[b]y reason of its ready acceptance of some, or all, of these nine myths and fallacious procedures, much nineteenth-century philosophy excludes itself from relevance to the ordinary stubborn facts of daily life.”

One of Whitehead's trademark phrases: "the stubborn facts of daily life," makes its first appearance in PR at this point. In seeking to repudiate this list, Whitehead identifies himself as realist, naturalist, empiricist, even, perhaps, pragmatist. He also shows the influence of his mathematical training, keen as he is to maintain a rigorous logical consistency in his work. This combination of mathematical logic with a willingness to confront all the "stubborn facts" of human life -- not only those facts typically most amenable to logical analysis -- is what creates the creative tension in Whitehead's scheme. He presents the tantalizing possibility of being able to explain, in some measure, those deep questions that at one point or another every philosophically inclined thinker has confronted. One might characterize this as courage on Whitehead's part, or abject foolishness, depending on one's own outlook. In his approach, one can find inspiration to tackle the questions that really matter -- and perforce break down the artificial, academic barriers between such diverse spheres of thought as science, religion, mathematics and ethics.

In reflecting upon these nine "habits of thought" (taken either together or separately, these "habits" may reflect what could be termed "mind-systems" or "worldviews"), one sees that points 8 and 9 concern themselves with methods of logical analysis; 2 and 4 lay a sharp critique on the belief held by some in the ability of language to adequately convey reality; 5 and 7 are related to each other in that they both stem from a preconception of the world of experience as split into object (outside) and subject (inside). Obviously, these two points also relate to Whitehead's critique of the "subject-predicate" form of linguistic expression. In point 6, Whitehead attacks the old, Newtonian notion of empty space (in keeping with the thinking and observation of twentieth century physics). Point 3 will require a more explicit teasing out of its significance, to be tackled soon in a separate post. In point 1, Whitehead emphasizes his desire to engage in speculative thought and his belief in its importance. The distrust of speculative thought in question was (and continues to be) partly the product of the ongoing rebellion of the empirical sciences against the tethering and strangulating influence of religious dogma.

Finally, toward the conclusion of his Preface, Whitehead shares with the reader "four strong impressions" gained through the course of putting his thoughts to paper. These are:

"First, 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. Secondly, that the true method of philosophical construction is to frame a scheme of ideas, the best that one can, and unflinchingly explore the interpretation of experience in terms of that scheme. Thirdly, that all constructive thought, on the various special topics of scientific interest, is dominated by some such scheme, unacknowledged, but no less influential in guiding the imagination. The importance of philosophy lies in its sustained effort to make such schemes explicit, and thereby capable of criticism and improvement. ... [fourth,] how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths of the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly."

So there you have it. Whitehead offers us his work as an exercise in "constructive philosophy" and urges us to take seriously this role of philosophy in interpreting human experience in all its many forms. He reminds us that there is a scheme -- a worldview or 'mind-system' at work whether we consciously recognize it or not. Better to examine our preconceptions and habits of mind than to remain unaware of them. Finally, he offers his construction in humility before the daunting complexity of the universe.

1 Whitehead's footnote: "Cf. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. IV, Ch. VI, Section 11."

Friday, May 18, 2007

Alfred North Whitehead: Brief Biographical Notes

There is a pretty good brief biography of Whitehead available on the wikipedia, and no doubt there are some other good ones online. Therefore, I won't go into all the biographical details, but only mention some of the highlights.

Alfred North Whitehead was born in 1861 and raised in Ramsgate, Kent, in England. His was a family of Anglican clergymen. He studied mathematics and went on to teach mathematics for many years at Cambridge University. Together with his famous student, Bertrand Russell, he wrote a substantial tome in three volumes on the logical foundations of mathematics called the Principia Mathematica (first published in the years 1910-1913).

Despite their early relationship and collaboration, it seems that Whitehead and Russell could not have been more different in temperament and outlook. Their collaboration did not survive the initial publication of the Principia, and at about that time, Whitehead left Cambridge for good. There are a number of apocryphal stories relating exchanges between Russell and Whitehead, or highlighting philosophical differences. I can recount the gist, but not the exact words, of one of these stories. It was said (perhaps by Whitehead himself) that Russell saw philosophy as clear-cut and distinct, as if seen by the noon-day sun, while Whitehead saw it as murky and mysterious, like the twilit hours at dawn and dusk. To Whitehead, reality was dauntingly complex, while Russell saw things in simple, orderly terms.

Whether or not this anecdote represents the thought of either men fairly, it does seem to indicate their temperamental differences.

After Cambridge, Whitehead spent quite a lot of time in London, where his attentions turned to such projects as mathematical education at London University, and the theoretical underpinnings of physics. It was during this time that his philosophical interests started to come to the fore.

Having written several interesting articles and books on the philosophy of education, theoretical physics and the philosophy of science, he was invited to join the philosophy faculty at Harvard University in 1924. He had never formally taught philosophy before. He stayed at Harvard until his retirement in 1937, and continued to live with his wife in the United States until his death in 1947.

His major work, Process and Reality, the primary subject of this blog, was produced during his Harvard years. It was published in 1929 and has since remained in print to fascinate succeeding generations of philosophers and theologians.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Whitehead's Process and Reality: Notes on the proposed project

I hope that new readers of the Zephyrus Unchained Process and Reality project will take a moment to read through this explanatory introduction. In it, I explain my interest in Whitehead as well as his influence on me; I describe the approach that will be taken in examining Process and Reality; and, at the end of this note, I will include a hyperlinked table of contents, that I wll update as new items are added to the blog.

I first encountered the thought and writings of Alfred North Whitehead in 1993, while taking a course on the "Frontiers of Knowledge" at New York University with the late Professor Tom Colwell. If I'm not mistaken, we were reading William E. Doll, Jr.'s book, A Post-modern Perspective on Curriculum (Teachers College Press, 1993). In that work, Doll included a chapter on "Dewey, Whitehead, and Process Thought." I was immediately interested and began to find other material about Whitehead, and soon managed to obtain a copy of his major work, Process and Reality (1929).

Whitehead became central to my Master's thesis, which dealt with questions on the philosophical foundations of teaching environmental awareness and ethics. He also reappeared in my Doctoral dissertation, although in a less central fashion.

Whitehead's process thought, what he himself called the "philosophy of organism," has always fascinated me, and I've often felt drawn to write more freely on his ideas than time and place have permitted. Not so long ago, it struck me that it might be enjoyable to blog about Whitehead in a broad sort of way. Inspired by some examples of close textual examination being carried out by blog (particularly noteworthy is the ongoing project on Samuel Pepys' Diary), I thought I might actually slog my way through Process and Reality paragraph by paragraph.

That is not practical, I think. First, there are most likely copyright restrictions. If the copyright on Whitehead's book has been renewed (and I think it has), then the earliest it can enter public domain is 95 years after the original date of publication (if I understand the U.S. copyright statutes correctly), which would make it available in 2024.

Second, it may simply be too gargantuan a project to quote and analyze every single paragraph. It is my intention nonetheless to use the structure and flow of Whitehead's original work (with ample, but not excessive, quotation) as the framework or scaffolding from which to explore the various ways that the philosophy of organism has proven to be so stimulating to myself and so many others.

It would otherwise be difficult for me to describe the impact of Whitehead on my own habits of thinking. It is surprising sometimes how often I will find myself giving a situation or a point of view a "Whiteheadian read." I find this particularly striking in the study of Buddhist doctrine, which clearly has much in common with Whitehead, despite the fact that Whitehead is most widely known and studied in connection with certain modern strands of Christian theology.

Another attraction for me is how well Whitehead's philosophy lends itself to ecological and environmental thinking. This, I believe, makes his ideas especially relevant today.

Whitehead also has a lot to say about the methods and roles of philosophical inquiry. There is something both sobering and very positive about his point of view. I hope my efforts in explaining his thought will be of benefit to myself and any reader who happens by.

My approach will be to take Process and Reality sections at a time, starting with the author's Preface. I'll provide an outline of the section and some meaningful quotes, followed by (or interspersed with) my interpretation of Whitehead's meaning. Points of connection will surely arise and can be used to connect to any number of other topics. I'll take these as they come, in an organic sort of way. How fitting!

Of course, this has been done before, in print form, and certainly by more expert thinkers than myself. Believing as I do that I nonetheless have something to add to the conversation, I will proceed fearlessly, and perhaps note the views of other interpreters, to the extent that their work is ready at hand or familiar to me.

I hope also that readers (if there be any) will take the time to leave comments of a constructive kind. That will add much to the discussion.

Project Table of Contents:

The Preface

Interlude, on John Locke
Chapter I, Section I
Chapter I, Section II