Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism and the Idealist Trap

Whitehead’s method of deriving his system may seem somewhat obscured to the reader at first. In many sections of Process and Reality, he prefers to merely set down his rules rather than talk about how these rules have been derived. This can be frustrating for many readers, myself included, who find themselves having to accept atomism, God, relationalism, and a myriad of other claims seemingly without justification to understand Whitehead. Absolute Idealists, for example, accuse Whitehead of not being able to self-ground and actually give a full account of experience. As Whitehead is not always clear on these matters, either not having had time to respond to such criticisms, or not finding them worthwhile, this article will attempt to explain as well as speculate a possible answer.

Radical Empiricism

As has been noted elsewhere, Whitehead is a radical empiricist in the vein of William James, though he also takes from Bergson. Radical empiricism holds that we do experience relation between objects, causality, etc. directly, in an attempt to undermine the Humean-Kantian conception of empiricism that had to hold that these must be imposed by the subject. Rather than asking what our minds must be like to experience, Whitehead essentially asks what the world must be like for us to experience it. Whitehead’s anti-Kantian account of experience will have to wait for a future article. If Whitehead can justify radical empiricism, he may continue with his project without fear of attack.

But the mere positing of radical empiricism seems to spring the correlationist-idealist trap. “Whitehead is using thought! He has no reason to trust thought, and thus if he cannot provide something akin to a Hegelian phenomenology of thought, he is helpless. As pure experience cannot self-reflect and develop like thought, the building of a self-necessary system is impossible and Whitehead may be consigned to the dustbin. If reason is employed, then we must be given reason to trust reason.”

It’s important here to note the extreme disconnect that is drawn between thought and the rest of our experience by the idealist. Reason has hermetically sealed itself off from the rest of the world, as if forgetting what gave it life and where it comes from. For an absolute idealist, thought must lift itself by its bootstraps in order to justify itself and place itself into the world. In order to justify us being things in the world, we must blindfold ourselves to it and find our way back out through the development of concepts. Perhaps Whitehead saw this as not worth responding to because he rejects this methodological dualism out of hand along with the bifurcation of nature. If reason, experience, passion, and the world are not separate to begin with, one flowing into the other seamlessly, this problem is a non-problem. But justifying this seems to require reason, and thus the regress continues.

Escaping the Trap

Where Whitehead seems to begin with his place himself behind both thought and pure experience into the perspective of attention. Let’s cut everything out of the picture, even the subject, and simply pay attention to attention. When attention discerns something, everything else is oriented around the point of attention. The point of attention may be anything: some object outside of us, an emotion, or a thought, or a prick of pain in the foot. The field of attention is a point of view with relative focus, but it does not necessarily include within it some subject viewing. All that is present in the point of view is merely a duration of feeling with measured importance Now we seem to be assuming much here, but attention appears to be prerequisite to any accusations against it. In order to think and posit a counterclaim, I must draw an argument/thought into my attention. The most ready objection is that attention is itself a thought/concept and thus falls into the idealist trap.

The counter to this is that if attention, or its concept, is required for conceptualization. We end up in a situation akin to saying that, until cooking is invented, we are unable to pull carrots from the ground. If we cannot conceptualize without attention, and attention is a concept, then we will always be caught in a sort of dependency loop. If, like digestion, attention is something precognitive requisite to its own cognizing, then we are safe to climb from the swamp of thought to the aeroplane of attention and begin our escape from methodological dualism.

The second line of idealist defense is that while attention may be precognitive, anything we can say about it and what it says must involve thought, and thus we trigger the trap. But attention is its own ground of validity, and thought must answer to it, not attention to thought. Now that attention is decidedly precognitive, thought is relegated to the realm of representation, and it need not ask whether it can be trusted. A representational scheme of thought is successful if it is able to successfully direct attention to some feature disclosed in experience. For example, divisibility as attention is able to focus more or less specifically on what it is attentive of. All of these claims, using thought, are now able to be justified on precognitive grounds, as the claims are not being made and justified the perspective of thought, but are being presented to attention. If a thought indicates some possible element of experience, attention does not need to ask “can I trust it?” and can merely discover for itself. If it fails to find what thought indicates in experience, then the thought may be dismissed.  The “true method of discovery” may be revealed now:

“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” (Process and Reality 5).

Thought is hobbled and unable to strike back, for to do so would be to undermine itself, if it has admitted attention to be a requisite precognition. In fact, thought is not even a distinct kind of feeling for attention, merely one kind among many. Radical empiricism, combined with Bergsonian direct realism, may be established from this foothold, avoiding the pitfalls of “natural consciousness.” Thought is relegated to being a speculative and communicative tool, and one that is limited. It must always appeal to the facts disclosed in attention. When we speak and formulate principles, we are merely putting forth symbolic representations that we admit cannot sound the true depths of experience.


What is disclosed to us is not true or false, but important. Attention is always to something with relative importance or relevance to attention. While truth may be relevant and importantfor example, when one observes a scientific experimentit is quite the opposite when one sits down to watch a play, walks down the street, or hugs their child. What is not true in the strict sense is often a matter of the utmost importance and something that can attract much interest. We can learn much from examining the way the half-truths and fuzzy instincts convey vivid information from our environment. The philosopher’s disdain for all which cannot be “knowledge” has ironically caused a poverty thereof. I do not mean to be a romantic, that all that is necessary is to simply hearken to beauty, but we must understand the emotional tinge to all that is, even the calculations of reason. We are not attracted to concepts not because they are true, but because we find them important. If there is concern for truth, it is always that, concern. We value truth precisely because we find it important, and importance cannot be cognized.

Importance is in a sense a pragmatic gesture, but it is not utilitarian or asking about the “use” of something. Importance in experience is more than that. Importance is just the quality of an experience that makes it relevant to attention, what allows it to be discerned in the first place. If we are attentive, more important facts may be disclosed. Saying that something is “important” does not necessarily grant it some permanent status above others, it is merely what is able to be noticed, and what is found interesting. It may become entirely irrelevant in one moment, replaced by something previously thought irrelevant, perhaps because something new and interesting was pointed out.

Importance is impossible to adequately cognize. Importance is fundamentally emotional and aesthetic; we may have our reasons for feeling things to be important, but any sufficient inquiry will reveal that we merely feel things to be important. There can be no other explanation for this which will not enter into either performative contradiction or infinite regress. When we speculate and create concepts, we do not need to see if we can “trust” them. There is merely the simple test to see if they can refer to something important enough for attention to notice it. To that end is where Whitehead is pointedtowards the understanding of the importance of things and the expansion of our attention so that what was always before us can be discovered:

“The use of philosophy is to maintain an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system. It reverses the slow descent of accepted thought towards the inactive commonplace. If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken. But the purpose of philosophy is to rationalize mysticism: not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coordinated.”

–Alfred Whitehead