Printer Friendly

Alfred North Whitehead.

Born: 1861, Ramsgate on the Isle of Thanet, England

Died: 1947, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Major Works: The Concept of Nature (1920), Science and the Modern World (1925), Process and Reality (1929), Adventures of Ideas (1933)

Major Ideas

The basic concrete entities are not enduring substances, but events (later: "actual entities" or "actual occasions") related by their space-time relations and exemplifying their qualitative and mathematical patterns (later: "eternal objects").

Time is differentiated from space by the acts of inheriting patterns from the past (later: "causal prehensions").

Enduring perceptual and physical objects, as well as scientific objects and minds, or souls, are repetitions of patterns inherited through a series of events, or occasions.

Physical causality is the inheritance of patterned energy from the past along the lines of the Minkowski cones constructed for special relativity theory.

The paradigm for an actual occasion is a complete, momentary human

experience, exemplifying causal prehensions in its acts of remembering and sensing, and conceptual prehensions in its acts of exemplifying these above patterns (eternal objects).

The completeness of an actual entity, like a human experience, lies in the integration ("concrescence") of all the various acts of prehending into one act according to some one aim ("the subjective aim").

This concrescence of an actual entity toward some one aim ("final causality") is its process of becoming, distinguishable from its acts of inheritance from the past ("efficient causality"), and which gives rise to the process of temporal transition.

God, too, is an actual entity, the concrescence of all acts of experiencing (prehending) into one everlasting act of experiencing ("God's Consequent Nature"), and it is God's conceptual prehensions of eternal objects that serve as lures (providing "subjective aims" for finite actual occasions) and form the basis of order ("God's Primordial Nature") in the cosmos.

Alfred North Whitehead has frequently been called the last great systematic philosopher, and with some justification. His career can be divided into three periods, each of which is dominated by interests that can roughly be characterized by his various titles at the educational institutions where he taught and the themes that at the time dominated his published work. From 1884 to 1910, he was a fellow in mathematics at Trinity College. This period, which could be referred to as his mathematical period, begins with the publication of his Universal Algebra, which consists of a systematization of Boolean Algebra and several applications to logic and to space, and it culminates with the writing of the three volumes of Principia Mathematica (1910-13) with Bertrand Russell. In this work, Whitehead and Russell set out to demonstrate Frege's logistic thesis that mathematics could be reduced to logic. Utilizing the new symbolic logic systematically synthesized by Frege and his definition of the natural numbers in terms of classes of classes, the first three volumes set out to axiomatize logic and to show how arithmetic could be deduced from the proposed system. According to Russell, there was to be an analogous fourth volume on the foundations of geometry, which was to be written by Whitehead. This volume was never published, as such, but the program of such a volume lies behind much of Whitehead's subsequent thought and eventually finds its final formulation in part 4 of Process and Reality.

There is also a memoir, entitled On Mathematical Concepts of the Material World and published by the Royal Society in 1906, in this first period that is an important precursor of Whitehead's next period. In this work, Whitehead utilizes the new logic to axiomatize several alternative conceptual frameworks for Newtonian physics, and then compares them in terms of their logical simplicity. This is perhaps the first utilization of the new symbolic logic to axiomatize a subject matter beyond mathematics, but more importantly than that, it is a good clue as to the way in which Whitehead conceives of conceptual framework, whether for natural science, as in his second period, or for speculative philosophy, as in his third period. The first conceptual framework is the standard one, which takes, as primitive, spatial points in a three-dimensional space, instants of time, and particles of matter, in with mass, velocity and direction. The latter framework, which he calls Leibnizian, takes particles as paths through spacetime and defines the other required concepts in terms of them. This is a precursor of his latter treatment of enduring objects as sequences of events, life histories, so to speak, exemplifying the same pattern throughout the sequence.

Both of these concerns from this first period, a search for the foundations of geometry and the development of the simplest and most general conceptual framework for natural science, become the concern of Whitehead's second period, which might be called his philosophy of natural science period. It begins roughly with his going to University College, London as a lecturer in applied mathematics in 1910 and continues through his position as professor of applied mathematics at Imperial College of Science and Technology, London (1914-24). This period embraces three of his major works of the period, The Principles of Natural Knowledge in 1919, The Concept of Nature in 1920, and The Principle of Relativity in 1922. In The Concept of Nature, Whitehead conceives of the philosophy of natural science as an attempt to exhibit all natural sciences as one science. This is done through constructing a conceptual framework in which they all find their niche. Since this inevitably involves some concept of space and time, the concerns of the fourth volume of Principia Mathematica are found here, but something important had happened in natural science that had to be taken account of: the publication of the general theory of relativity by Einstein in 1906.

The basic conceptual framework advocated by Whitehead in this period is best summarized in his "Summary" in The Concept of Nature. There he tells us that "the concrete facts of nature are events exhibiting a certain structure in their mutual relations and certain characters of their own." The term event is taken in the sense of a space-time "chunk of nature." In these three works, he distinguishes between a number of events. There is first the percipient event, that chunk of space-time which is the standpoint of some observation of nature. We always observe nature from within nature. Second, there is what he calls a duration, the complete slab of nature that is there for observation by a percipient event. Third, there are the active conditioning events, those events that enter causally into the makeup of the percipient event. Fourth, there are all the passive events, the other events that make up the entire space-time continuum of events and contribute space-time location to the percipient event. And fifth, there are all the events that are smaller space-time parts, or subevents, of any of these events. All events have smaller events as parts.

In addition to events, there are the relations between events. The most important such relation was mentioned above, the part-whole relation, or its converse, the relation of an event extending over another. It is this relation of part to whole among events that Whitehead uses in this period to suggest a construction for geometry, the missing fourth volume of Principia Mathematica. He utilizes a technique he calls "extensive abstraction" to construct geometric entities. This technique is to take a sequence of events, each of which is a smaller part of the previous one and with no smallest, then to define geometric elements as the element toward which the sequence converges. In this way the geometric elements are abstracted from the more concrete elements, the events. The other important relation between events is the temporal ordering relation, "earlier than." And since Whitehead in this period was under the influence of the special theory of relativity, even though he contributed an alternative to Einstein's general theory of relativity in The Principles of Relativity, he countenances multiple time systems in the temporal ordering of durations and accepts the Minkowski cones for the special theory of relativity in his construction.

In the "Summary" to The Concept of Nature, Whitehead mentions, in addition to events and their relations, the characteristics of events. The characteristics of events are due to the objects that ingress into the events. Whitehead distinguishes between events and objects in the following way: Events never reoccur; once an event occurs and passes, it never reoccurs again. On the other hand, objects are recognized by us because they can reoccur, or to use his technical term, can ingress into events over and over. It does not make sense to say, "The same event occurred today that occurred yesterday," unless we mean by "same event" a similar event, similar by virtue of its characteristics, which are due to objects. It does, however, make sense to say, "That is the same color as was the dress you wore yesterday." A color is an object; it can and does reappear.

In the three works that exemplify this period in Whitehead's career, he does not give consistent listings of the kinds of objects. Among those listed are sense objects--such things as colors, tastes, smells, and so forth, the qualitative entities frequently referred to as sense data. He does not use the term, however, since he is not concerned with their givenness but with their qualitative nature, their possibility of reoccurrence and their being spatiotemporally related by virtue of their ingression into events into events in nature. In fact, he sees his own position as putting the secondary sense qualities back into nature. I observe red there-now, where the dress is, from here-now, where I am. There are also what Whitehead refers to as "perceptual objects," such as a lady with a red dress, but such objects are both of a delusive and nondelusive nature. A pink elephant dancing on the table would be an illustration of a delusive perceptual object. Nondelusive perceptual objects are physical objects. Scientific objects, along with the space-time points required by science, are gotten by the method of extensive abstraction from events (the space-time points, for example) and from physical objects (the material particles, for example).

The last phase of Whitehead's thought coincides with his move to Harvard and his turn to metaphysics. The introduction for this period is Science and the Modern World (1925) and it also includes Religion in the Making (1926) and Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (1927). It is in these works that we find his interest broadening into what he later calls speculative philosophy, or metaphysics, which concerns a conceptual framework that integrates natural science with moral and aesthetic value, religious feeling and theology. In Science and the Modern World, for example, we not only have events, their relations and characters, but the concept of "the value realized in an event." The old theory of objects that ingress in events is turning into an elaborate theory of a hierarchy of relational "eternal objects" and their potential for ingression into events, giving rise to the need for a principle of concretion, God. Enduring objects, such as a table, are explicitly treated in terms of long events, each temporal segment of which exemplifies the same pattern or eternal object. In Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, Whitehead develops and refines the account of the perception of the old percipient event. Here there are two modes of perception, perception in the mode of causal efficacy, the old conditioning events for the percipient event; and the mode of presentational immediacy, a new role for the old durations.

The magnum opus of this period is, of course, Process and Reality, without questions one of the most difficult books to read in the history of philosophy. For this reason, an understanding of White-head's earlier work is essential. This broadening of the earlier conceptual framework of the philosophy of science period to include the concept of the value realized in an event leads Whitehead to adjust the notion of an "event"; in fact, the term is virtually unused in Process and Reality. The old concept of an event has been replaced by three new ones, actual entities (or occasions), nexus, and prehensions, each of which in the old terminology is a "chunk of space-time." The actual entity is the refined generalization of the old percipient event. It is distinguished from other events in that it has an aim ("subjective aim") and is the locus of realized value in nature. Nexus are simple events made of actual entities as their parts and have no overall subjective aim. Prehensions, acts of prehending, are subevents within an actual entity, and they concresce together, teleologically guided by the overall aim of the actual entity of which they are parts. Thus a kind of atomism is introduced into the continuum of events by the notion of "the realized value in an event," and the old concept of an event becomes a far more complex one.

The concrescence of the many acts of prehending into the one actual entity, which is an experience of the entire universe as actual and possible from that unique place in space-time, gives rise in Whitehead to two types for process. One is the temporal transition from actual occasion to actual occasion, and within an actual occasion, the other is the process of concrescence, the becoming of the actual entity, and this process is not a temporal process. The first is the area of efficient causality, where occasion inherits from occasion; the second is the area of final causality, where the various prehensions concresce into one actual entity, guided by that entity's subjective aim.

God's envisagement of all the eternal objects acts as a lure to the finite actual occasions in their coming to be. This is the old principle of concretion of Science and the Modern World and referred to by Whitehead as God's primordial nature. The consequent nature of God is all the finite occasions, serving as God's prehensions, concrescing together into one primordial, nontemporal, everlasting actual entity according to God's own subjective aim.

Whitehead seemed to be aware himself that his magnum opus was unreadable, and in his later works, The Function of Reason (1929), Adventures of Ideas (1933), Modes of Thought (1938), and Nature and Life (1934), he presents the themes of his system in a more popular form.

Further Reading

Leclerc, Ivor. Whitehead's Metaphysics. London: Macmillan, 1958. This book remains perhaps the best introduction to Whitehead's developed metaphysical system. Unfortunately Leclerc relies heavily on Aristotle to elucidate Whitehead, but by and large Whitehead himself prefers Plato.

Lowe, Victor. Understanding Whitehead. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1962. The first essay in this collection on Whitehead's development is the best work anywhere on the subject.

Palter, R. M. Whitehead's Philosophy of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. The work here on this subject is unparalleled, but it is highly technical in some parts.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. Corr. ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne, ed. New York: Macmillan, 1978. There are many editions of Process and Reality, and unfortunately they differ. Also, all of the editions are filled with misprints. This edition needs mentioning because in the "Editor's Notes" they give the readings of the different editions and in the texts the editors have corrected a number of obvious misprints. Clarke, Bowman L.
COPYRIGHT 1992 COPYRIGHT 1992 Ian P. McGreal
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Clarke, Bowman L.
Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:John Dewey.
Next Article:George Santayana.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters