Process and Reality: Chapter 1

The first chapter of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality explains his ideas about the nature and goals of philosophy.  It is unabashedly metaphysical in the classical, pre-Kantian sense, in that it is a description of the sorts of entities and the relations between them that make up reality.  This first chapter is an argument for why such a metaphysical account is necessary.

A System of General Ideas

Whitehead opens by saying that “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.” (3/30)  Such a scheme has four requirements; it must be coherent, logical, applicable, and adequate.  Coherence means that a scheme’s ideas only make sense in light of one another; they cannot be abstracted apart from one another.  All the pieces must work together as a whole, and cannot work apart from one another.  Logic is a matter of non-contradiction.  Applicability means that the scheme can be used to interpret some things, and adequacy means the scheme must be able to interpret everything.

Speculative philosophy has a rationalist and an empiricist side.  Coherence and logic belong to rationalism, and applicability and adequacy belong to empiricism.  Adequacy does double duty; it is not only an element of empiricism, but also that which combines the rationalist and empiricist sides.  For a system’s adequacy to hold, all observed experience needs to have the same texture; that is, the scheme must be universal in experience.

That universality has one constraint: we need to confine ourselves “to that which communicates with immediate matter of fact.  But that which does not so communicate is unknowable, and the unknowable is unknown, and so this universality defined by ‘communication’ can suffice.” (4/31)  Further, “This doctrine of necessary 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 this essence.” (4/31)  I take this to mean that adequacy is a matter of adequacy to any all all phenomena, including both rational and empirical objects.

Rational Imagination and First Principles

The primary barrier to grasping absolute metaphysical first principles is language.  Words and phrases get stretched beyond ordinary usage, and even when stabilized as technicalities, “they remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap.” (4/31)  Despite this, “There is no first principle which is in itself unknowable, not to be captured by a flash of insight.” (4/31)  There can only be an asymptotic approach to a scheme of principles, definable in terms of an ideal.

He says an additional problem is is the empirical side of philosophy; the point of philosophy is the analysis of experience, but the demands of empiricism can cripple that goal, by blinding us to the necessity of a rationalistic account of metaphysical first principles.  Empirical perception works through differentiation; sometimes we see an elephant, sometimes we do not.  The attempt to restrict thought to the “strict systematization of detailed discrimination” breaks down.  Rigid empiricism—that is, differential perception—doesn’t work.

Hence, a strict adherence to Baconian induction would have stifled science.  Thought needs imagination.  There must be an interplay of observation (of physics, ethics, language, and so on) and flights of imagination.  Imagination is required because “when the method of difference fails, factors which are constantly present may yet be observed under the influence of imaginative thought.” (5/32)  It supplies differences which observation lacks.  It can even play with inconsistency, in order to throw light on the constant.

While imagination must be rooted in the disciplines, the success of philosophical generalization is judged by its success outside its original range—so a statement derived from physics must be useful beyond physics.  There must be some kind of synoptic, general vision.  Philosophical generalization means “the utilization of specific notions, applying to a restricted group of facts, for the divinization of the generic notions which apply to all facts.” (5/32)

Natural science is a mix of rationalism and irrationalism.  It is rational within its own borders, and irrational outside.  In denying that there is anything beyond science, it denies thought itself.

The main sort of error in philosophy is overstatement, of which there are two forms.  The first is what Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, which is underestimating the degree of abstraction involved when an actual entity is taken as exemplifying a category of thought. The second from is beginning from “clear and distinct ideas,” rather than arriving at them.  Philosophy has been mislead by the example of mathematics.  Systems should be judged in terms of their general success, not the certainty or clarity of their first principles.

All productive thought is preceded by poetic insight or the elaboration of schemes or thought; “In some measure or another, progress is always a transcendence of what is obvious,” and so “The primary advantage [of rational imagination] thus gained is that experience is not interrogated with the benumbing repression of common sense.  The observation acquires an enhanced penetration by reason of the expectation evoked by the conclusion of the argument.” (9/36)  He concludes this section by saying,

Rationalism never shakes off its status of an experimental adventure. The combined influences of mathematics and religion, which have so greatly contributed to the rise of philosophy, have also had the unfortunate effect of yoking it with static dogmatism. Rationalism is an adventure in the clarification of thought, progressive and never final. But it is an adventure in which even partial success has importance. (9/36)

The Special Sciences and Philosophical Generality

A special science is confined to one genus of facts; it makes no statements about facts outside that genus. Those facts have definite relations among themselves, and they carry importance for survival or enjoyment—for being or well-being.  Because of this limitation, the matters of the special sciences can be dealt with by language in a precise way.

Philosophy is about larger generalities. When a new science arises, when it is trying to work out its general ideas, looks like philosophy; in later stages, they are more concerned with the development and verification of specific statements, and repudiate philosophy.  He uses Newtonian physics as an example:

The fate of Newtonian physics warns us that there is a development in scientific first principles, and that their original forms can only be saved by interpretations of meaning and limitations of their field of application—interpretations and limitations unsuspected during the first period of successful deployment. (10/37)

Hence, one of the aims of philosophy is to challenge the half-truths of the scientific first principles. The systematization of knowledge can’t be done in airtight compartments. All general truths condition each other, and their limits cannot be seen without yet wider generalities. Hence, we require a generality transcending any specific subject matter.

The rise of European philosophy was aided by the development of math as a science of abstract generality, but philosophy has also been harmed by this; math is deductive, while philosophy relies on descriptive generalizations. Philosophy has tried to imitate this, instead of taking its true place as an “auxiliary mode of verification which tests the scope of generalities.” (10/37)

Truth and Propositions

Every science makes its own instruments, and philosophy’s tool is language. Philosophy redesigns language just like a physical science redesigns existing physical tools.  It is not entirely clear to me, but Whitehead seems to make a distinction between propositions, verbal phrases, and facts.

He says, “every proposition refers to a universe exhibiting some general systematic metaphysical character. Apart from this background, the separate entities which go to form the proposition, and the proposition as a whole, are without determinate character.” (11/38)  Every entity requires a systematic universe to supply its status, so every proposition proposing a fact, in its complete analysis, must propose the general universe required for that fact. Facts cannot be torn from the world, but “A proposition can embody partial truth because it only demands a certain type of systematic environment, which is presupposed in its meaning. It does not refer to the universe in all its detail.” (11/38)

A practical aim of metaphysics is the analysis of propositions, both metaphysical and everyday. The genus of facts that make up the field of a special science require some metaphysical presuppositions; “It is merely credulous to accept verbal phrases as adequate statements of propositions. The distinction between verbal phrases and complete propositions is one of the reasons why the logicians’ rigid alternative, ‘true or false,’ is so largely irrelevant for the pursuit of knowledge.”(11/38)

He thinks the the trust in linguistic phrases has been the source of a great deal of scholasticism.  He quotes Mill about the Medievals: “They thought that by determining the meaning of words they could become acquainted with facts.” (12/39)  But Mill doesn’t really explain why that is wrong. He thinks language enunciates well-defined propositions, but that isn’t true: “Language is thoroughly indeterminate, by reason of the fact that every occurrence presupposes some systematic type of environment.”(12/39)

For example, the word ‘Socrates,’ referring to the philosopher, in one sentence may stand for an entity presupposing a more closely defined background than the word ‘Socrates,’ with the same reference, in another sentence. The word ‘mortal’ affords an analogous possibility. A precise language must await a completed metaphysical knowledge. (12/39)

Philosophy’s technical language is the attempt to explicitly describe general ideas presupposed by experience.  Any novelty in metaphysical ideas always disagrees to some degree with what came before, and the extent of disagreement indicates the degree of divergence, so it is not a valid criticism to say that an idea is wrong because it does not “follow from the verbal expression of the facts accepted by another school.”

“The truth itself is nothing else than how the composite natures of the organic actualities of the world obtain adequate representation in the divine nature. Such representations compose the ‘consequent nature’ of God, which evolves in its relationship to the evolving world without derogation on to the eternal completion of its primordial conceptual nature. In this way the ‘ontological principle’ is maintained-since there can be no determinate truth, correlating impartially the partial experiences of many actual entities, apart from one actual entity to which it can be referred. The reaction of the temporal world on the nature of God is considered subsequently in Part V: it is there termed ‘the consequent nature of God.’” (12-13)

Everything in experience has to fall within the scope of the metaphysical description.  When the metaphysic cannot include something, it is inadequate.   But every metaphysical system is only an approximation to the general truths sought.  For example, there are no axiomatic certainties from which to start.  The only possible procedure is to start from verbal expressions, which are ill-defined and ambiguous.

Older systems have a false air of precision because their phrases have passed into common usage.  When we trust these phrases too much, we end up contradicting experience, or passing over details.  Even the basic subject-object relation, “the grass is green,” which appears to be a  metaphysical first principle, must give way before a more complex view.

The Use of Philosophy

He says speculative philosophy has been criticized as being too ambitious.  Rationalism is accepted as a way to advance in the particular sciences, but not the largest generalities.  Evidence for this is all the failed metaphysical systems in history.  But we don’t hold science to that standard; we don’t hold to 17th century physics anymore than we do Cartesian philosophy.  But within limits, both systems had some truth; it is only later than we see the wider categories which define their limits.

A second objection is the uselessness of philosophical speculation.  The argument is that instead of generalities, we need to describe detailed matters of fact and the laws that systematize these facts.  General interpretation has no bearing upon this, so any system of generalization remains barren.

In response, Whitehead says there are no brute, self-contained matters of fact, capable of being understood apart from interpretation within a system.  When we try to describe immediate matters of fact, we are immediately led beyond them, to their past, their future, and the universals in terms of which their definiteness is exhibited.  A unity of interpretation is required.   He says,

“Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity.  Each actual occasion contributes to the circumstances of its origin additional formative elements deepening its own peculiar individuality.  Consciousness is only the last and greatest of such elements by which the selective character of the individual obscures the external totality from which it originates and which it embodies.” (15/42)

Consciousness selects and so obscures matters; philosophy discovers what has been excluded.

Religion and Science

In order for philosophy’s generalizations to have content, it requires a close relation with religion and science.  It fuses the two into one rational scheme of thought.

Religion connects the generality of philosophy with the emotions and purposes which spring out of life in a given society, conditioned by particular antecedents.  “Religion is the translation of general ideas into particular thoughts, particular emotions, and particular purposes; it is directed to the end of stretching individual interest beyond its self-defeating particularity.” (15/42)

Religion wants to infuse emotion into the “non-temporal generality” which belongs to conceptual thought alone.  Life is tedious without that fusion.  Emotional experiences illustrate a conceptual justification, and conceptual experiences find an emotional illustration.

The demand for an intellectual justification of brute experience is also a part of science.  In this sense, science is a variant of religion.  The scientific devotion to truth as an ideal is an illustration of this.

But there is a big difference between science and religion as to which part of individual experience they are concerned with: “Religion is centered upon the harmony of rational thought with the sensitive reaction to the percepta from which experience originates. Science is concerned with the harmony of rational thought with the percepta themselves.” (16/43)  When science deals with emotions, it is dealing with percepta, not the passions; it is a third person description, not the description of a first person experience.

“Religion deals with the formation of the experiencing subject; whereas science deals with the objects, which are the data forming the primary phase in this experience.  The subject originates from, and amid, given conditions; science conciliates thought with this primary matter of fact; and religion conciliates the thought involved in the process with the sensitive reaction involved in that same process. The process is nothing else than the experiencing subject itself. In this explanation it is presumed that an experiencing subject is one occasion of sensitive reaction to an actual world. Science finds religious experiences among its percepta; and religion finds scientific concepts among the conceptual experiences to be fused with particular sensitive reactions.” (16/43)

Finally, he says,

“The useful function of philosophy is to promote the most general systematization of civilized thought. There is a constant reaction between specialism and common sense. It is the part of the special sciences to modify common sense. Philosophy is the welding of imagination and common sense into a restraint upon specialists, and also into an enlargement of their imaginations. By providing the generic notions philosophy should make it easier to conceive the infinite variety of specific instances which rest unrealized in the womb of nature.” (17/44)


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