The Speculative Theodyssey of A. N. Whitehead: (1) Physics and Philosophic History

To judge by the plants and fish I have seen in Naples and Sicily, I would, if I were ten years younger, be very tempted to make a trip to India, not in order to discover something new, but in order to contemplate in my own way what has already been discovered.

These are the words from a letter that Goethe wrote to his friend, Karl Ludwig von Knebel, from Italy on August 18, 1787. With his unassuming words, Goethe offers an unique perspective on an universal mystery: the paradox of the one and the many. How many countless beings had been born, trodden, and died upon the same Indian subcontinent when Goethe penned these words? And yet the selfsame country has revealed herself to no two of these souls in the same way. The world eternally offers itself in the present moment to perish into memory. Splintering into a myriad distinct viewpoints, and yet the world is forever reborn again: in body as cosmos and in spirit as experience. Even as each of a thousand snowflakes in a winter street reflects, “in [its] own way,” the starlight of innumerable cosmic bodies, so every being of the universe is also a mirror of that universe. William Blake captures this wonder of wonders:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Nothing could be more vain than to seek comprehension of the poet’s meaning through recourse to formal logic or Newtonian physics; one might as well attempt to rend the air incorporal with a blade, or measure the principle of Justice with a balance. The renowned philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead recognises this futility when he notes that “logic presupposes metaphysics.” Whitehead offers another approach to the great enigmas, however, when he writes that “the purpose of philosophy is to rationalize mysticism: not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coördinated.” Let us then attempt to “contemplate in [our] own way” the world that is Whitehead’s system of speculative philosophy, and let us undertake this task according to the thinker’s own recommended method. Finally, Whitehead also provides a measure of success when he writes, “Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”

Any inquiry into the wonderful world of Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy will demand some initiation into his consistent insistence on a singularly abstruse manner of expression. Perhaps under the premise that new wine is unbefitting to old wine-skins, the thinker’s style dictates that one should be hard-pressed to uncover a single word of plain Saxon amidst the mass of synthetic Greco-Latin “neo-verbalisms” that characterise the philosopher’s preferred manner of expression. Indeed, the cobbled Frankensteinian quality of Whitehead’s language may tend to terrify the neophyte and as such presents what is likely the greatest obstacle to appreciation of his genius. Let us, therefore, waste no time in overcoming this initial barrier to comprehension of this great thinker.

Such terms as prehension, actual occasion, eternal object, ingression, concrescence, and God in his consequent and primordial nature appear as cognitive hurdles which may, however, become stepping-stones on the summit to comprehension. Given the ecology of ideas—or as Whitehead writes, that “each entity, of whatever type, essentially involves its own connection with the universe of other things” —to undertake such a journey will lead us on a grand traverse over peaks and vales of philosophical history.

Central to Whitehead’s project as an eminent figure in that discipline is to conceive of a world-view that may account for all aspects of experience, and prehension is the philosopher’s neologism to describe the genesis of such experience. Ordinarily, one employs the word “perception” for this process, but Whitehead justifies a novel coinage when he writes:

The word perceive is, in our common usage, shot through and through with the notion of cognitive apprehension. So is the word apprehension, even with the adjective cognitive omitted. I will use the word prehension for uncognitive apprehension: by this I mean apprehension which may or may not be cognitive.

In a the substance ontology typical of most of the history of Western science, bits of matter are posited as the building-blocks of reality. As far back as Democritus in Ancient Greece, for instance, one may discover the materialistic conception of reality: “By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void,” the Pre-Socratic thinker purportedly declared. By the twentieth century, when Whitehead provided the description above, the metaphysical doctrine of materialist physics stood as a fully-established intellectual edifice that represented, however, the joint labour of philosophers across centuries and meridians. Aristotle had contributed an important development to Democritus’ physicalist conception of reality with the former’s notion of hyle, literally “wood.” With the latter, Aristotle intended to delineate the unformed material potential whereupon a formative principle, called “morphē,” should continually act. Arabic philosophers of the Middle Ages elaborated Aristotle’s physics in several ways to fit it into congruence with the Islamic doctrine. Perhaps most important in regard to the present inquiry was the former’s conception of hyle, or matter, as not merely potential, but also actual. While according Aristotle’s doctrine of hylomorphism, all matter bore an immanent form—the latter representing the active actualising aspect of what the former contained as patient potential—eminent Arabian thinkers such as Averroës (Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina) began to increasingly differentiate matter (hyle) and form (morphē). Ultimately, these aspects were to be cloven asunder such that matter or substance could be conceived entirely inabstracto, which is to say, utterly devoid of form or quality. This completion was left to thinkers of seventeenth century Europe, when the philosophic structure initiated by Democritus achieved its inauguration. As the dawn of scientific revolution burst forth over Europe, Copernicus, Galileo, Locke, Bacon, Harvey, Newton, and Descartes, jointly placed the keystone on this grand erection. Whitehead describes the physical-metaphysical division of substance and form as one of these thinkers expressed it:

At the beginning of the modern period Descartes expresses this dualism with the utmost distinctness. For him, there are material substances with spatial relations, and mental substances. The mental substances are external to the material substances. Neither type requires the other type for the completion of its essence. Their unexplained interrelations are unnecessary for their respective existences.

Continual additions to the edifice of physical science in the centuries to follow had seen it come to tower above all other metaphysical constructions. Whitehead describes the doctrine of “scientific materialism” that represents the culmination of this philosophical development:

There persists … [according to this conception, a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread through space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call “scientific materialism.”

Whitehead, however, explicitly rejects the world-conception that posits “irreducible brute matter” as the fundament of reality. As the title of his most famous work suggests, and as he also explicitly elaborates in many of his works and lectures, Whitehead conceives of reality as process. In a 1938 lecture which would subsequently be published in the collection titled Modes of Thought, for instance, Whitehead declares that of “One main doctrine, developed in these lectures, is that existence (in any of its senses) cannot be abstracted from process. The notions of process and existence presuppose each other.” To relate Whitehead’s assertion to Aristotle’s original conception of hylomorphism, one may recognise in the notion of process precisely that development whereby form acts immanently in matter. In the unfoldment from potential to actuality, form represents the entelechial principle that guides this process. Thus, possibility becomes deed as the perennial wedding of form and substance. Whitehead conceives of this dynamic evolution as fundamental and concrete in contrast to a notion of matter per se, which Whitehead recognises to be an unilateral abstraction. Scientific materialism is untenable for Whitehead because, evidently, material particles cannot constitute the basis of a reality of which matter is not basic. The atoms of Whitehead’s universe, therefore, are not atoms at all, but sentient events, which he elects to call “actual occasions.” These actual occasions conspire to form “societies of actual occasions,” which, we would ordinarily call “entities,” or “organisms,” irrespective of technical Whiteheadian argot. Ingression describes the process of prehension by actual occasions, but emphasises the objective or potential pole of the event. Through prehension, “eternal (potential) objects”—like yellow, medium-sized, or the number 3, for instance—ingress into the experience of actual occasions (or societies thereof) and thereby undergo a process of concrescence. This is to say that the eternal objects “grow together” and thereby become concrete. We might imagine potential eternal objects pouring into concrete reality through the subjective nature of actual occasions, and thereby becoming actual objects of experience. As a coral reef represents the submarine sacrifice of myriad microscopic architects who offered their skeletons as bricks and their corpses as mortar, so actual occasions sparkle in an atomic instant, like snowflakes in the moonlight, and then perish into the substance of manifest reality: subjectivity flashes forth as invisible scintillae and each grasps the entire cosmos in its prehension, and then falls to the objective ground. In Whitehead’s words:

Let us…assume that each entity, of whatever type, essentially involves its own connection with the universe of other things. This connection can be viewed as being what the universe is for that entity either in the way of accomplishment or in the way of potentiality. It can be termed the perspective of the universe for that entity. For example, these are the perspectives of the universe for the number three, and for the colour blue, and for any one definite occasion of realized fact.

Each perspective for any one qualitative abstraction such as a number, or a colour, involves an infinitude of alternative potentialities. On the other hand, the perspective for a factual occasion involves the elimination of alternatives in respect to the matter-of-fact realization involved in that present occasion, and the reduction of alternatives as to the future; since that occasion, as a member of its own contemporary world, is one of the factors conditioning the future beyond itself.

In the next section we will continue our retraverse of Whitehead’s Theodyssey.

This post was originally published at Le Lizard-presse in December of 2017.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s