Why/How to Read A.N Whitehead

Whitehead is an intimidating figure in the history of philosophy. He is obscure, and his influence, where there is any, appears trivial and esoteric. Few people are aware that Whitehead was a philosopher. His most well known work with Russell, the Principia Mathematica, firmly cemented his reputation as mathematician. Furthermore, the failure of that work lead many to dismiss Whitehead entirely, even though Whitehead’s mathematical career has little to do with his philosophy. Dubbed “The Philosophy of Organism,” Whitehead attempted to do away with the notion of substance in philosophy, formulating a system of organic philosophy which would finally give process its proper place in philosophy, rather than offer mere lip-service to Heraclitus. Whitehead’s problem is somewhat deeper than that though. He really sets to respond to a problem he coins “The Bifurcation of Nature,” the demolition of substance being merely one thing necessary for the abolition of the Bifurcation.

This is the splitting of the world into primary and secondary qualities. That is to say, qualities which are inherently in objects, such as figure or molecular structure, and features which are inherently subjective, like color. The latter, in much of metaphysics, does not exist without someone to view them. Color literally drains out of the world, and our own experience becomes less real than what we have posited from our experience. Humans are irrevocably cut off from the world. The bifurcation leads to a host of other philosophical problems, like the mind-body problem, idealism, scientism, among others. Whitehead is a radical empiricist, and he seeks to explain every factor in experience, leaving nothing untouched.

“Philosophy destroys its usefulness when it indulges in brilliant feats of explaining away. It is then trespassing with the wrong equipment upon the field of particular sciences. Its ultimate appeal is to the general consciousness of what in practice we experience. Whatever thread of presupposition characterizes social expression throughout the various epochs of rational society must find its place in philosophic theory. Speculative boldness must be balanced by complete humility before logic, and before fact.It is a disease of philosophy when it is neither bold nor humble, but merely a reflection of the temperamental presuppositions of exceptional personalities” (Process and Reality 17).

Whitehead refuses to explain away anything. Philosophy must explain without explaining away, and the bifurcation is at the root of all explaining away. Whitehead, then, is at his core an anti-positivist, yet a unique one. Whitehead does not seek to do away with science; in fact, his philosophy is rather pro-science. His problem is with scientism, or what he called “scientific materialism.” An example of this is when someone concludes that conscious experience does not exist because it is not accounted for by scientific models. These models are in turn built off of conscious experience. Scientific materialism commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness in that, upon building abstractions based on concrete experience, it asserts the abstractions to be concrete and thus undermines itself. This fallacy can only occur in a bifurcated world, in which subjective experience is entirely torn from the objective and vice versa. Whitehead does not make polemics against science, but rather politely, and with a bit of English humor, explains the problem and provides a possible solution. The solution however, as Isabelle Stengers frequently notes, must not butcher the problem in the process!

How do we prevent the splitting of the world into an inescapable dualism? That is the question Whitehead seeks to answer, and the answer requires twisting philosophy in delightful waysmaking metaphysics speak of what it typically fails toof change, experience, the body the ultimate relativity of all viewpoints, and many more. Whitehead leaves no stone unturned in his quest to purge philosophy of the twin maladies of substance and dualism. In this journey, he takes everyone from Descartes to Kant and turns them right-side up, finding arguments for experiential causality in Hume and arguments against dualism in Descartes. The adventure of Whiteheadian metaphysics ends with a system which, while based entirely on radical empiricism, does not fall into materialism on one hand or transcendental idealism and subjectivism on the other. He avoids anthropocentrism and builds a flat ontology where everything from space dust to living beings take an active part in creation.

Putting all this aside, the personal appeal of Whitehead for me is that he is the first philosopher who caused a complete change in my worldview. I had been an idealist for quite some time and had taken a passing interest in Whitehead. It was around two p.m. in the morning, and I was struggling desperately to get through one of his discussions of Hume and Kant in Process and Reality when it all snapped together. I nearly shouted “By God, he’s right; causality is a part of experience!” Whitehead’s ingenious arguments about causality, perception, and experience in general completely shifted the way I viewed the world, and I was not even expecting it to happen. Whitehead did not win me over through tricks, rhetoric, and polemics, but by simple and polite discussion. There is no obscurity of method or a hidden agenda; indeed there is hardly ever a hint of antagonism or of dramaturgy in Whitehead’s writing. He is plain and to the point, bumbling along in a somewhat pedantic and academic tone and saying the most profound things left and right without blinking. Moreover, Whitehead never self-aggrandizes his work – quite the opposite. Whitehead is humble from the beginning, constantly reinforcing the incompleteness of his, and indeed, any philosophical scheme for sounding the true depths of reality. He never proclaims an end of philosophy, or of anything, for doing so would be antithetical to the nature of his philosophy, which deals with understanding the ceaseless production of novelty. His tone is not that of a moralizer or a prophet, but simply that of an enthusiastic and sincere teacher wishing to share his knowledge. Whitehead is a good philosopher because he simply does philosophy rather than seeking something beyond it; he is a true lover of wisdom.

Difficulties in Reading

Vocabulary

The largest barrier to Whitehead is probably the vocabulary. Very few terms used by Whitehead retain their original meaning, and if they do, they retain the original meaning only as a special case of a wider phenomenon. The term “feeling” is a good example of this happening. If one is not careful, a page filled with seemingly familiar words can become nigh-incomprehensible. The fastest way to grasp vocabulary is to act as if each technical term you encounter in Whitehead is something entirely new. Forget any previous idea you had of it, and try and figure out what Whitehead means by it. It is also essential to go through with a glossary of Whitehead terms such as those in this excellent book. Many of the words in Process and Reality do not make sense until you see how they fit into the larger scheme, but a glossary can help you start to piece together the main ideas. By far the most important idea to understand in Whitehead is the concept of “prehension.” Once you understand how prehensions work, you have a solid base upon which to build your knowledge of Whitehead. Understanding what eternal objects and the “primordial nature of God” is is also key. Keep in mind that the word “God” in Whitehead is a technical term too, not some transcendent entity brought in to bring together what cannot be brought together.

Style

Whitehead, rather than suffering from a vagueness of terminology or description, suffers from an overabundance of detail. This is a blessing and a curse. Whitehead is nothing if not explicit, but the nuance of his investigations can be overwhelming. Compounded with the above vocabulary, it can be easy to get brain-fried if one is not careful. This can also be frustrating, as Whitehead can seem to pontificate about things whose importance is not quite clear. Take things slowly: Whitehead thought long and hard about each discussion in his writings; he would not have put these thoughts in his books if he did not think they were important. When Whitehead begins listing the characteristics of something, be sure to pay close attention and make sure you really understand what is being said. If you are unable to piece things together, do not stress over it, but move on and come back to it latereventually it will make sense.

Structure

This leads into the final difficulty: the structure. This is both a blessing and a curse. Process and Reality is a labyrinthine book, and Whitehead’s philosophy eludes a linear explanation. Unlike philosophers such as Hegel, where there is a definite step-by-step progression, Whitehead’s philosophy is much more like a web. This is good in that Whitehead can circle around and explain things multiple times, shedding new light on them each time. The downside is that, well, he circles around and explains things multiple times, having to shed new light on them each time. It is very difficult to get a foothold and penetrate, for there is not really a good place to start with Process and Reality.

In order to get around this, I suggest that you don’t start with Process and Reality. Instead, by getting a preliminary idea of the important ideas in Whitehead’s philosophy in his less systematic texts, approaching his magnum opus will be much easier. I suggest this order.

  • The excellent chapter of Adventures of Ideas entitled “Objects and Subjects.” This may be one of the best introductions to the key ideas of Whitehead despite it being in the middle of a book. It can be read with a glossary and without the context of the rest of the book. I recommend finding a PDF of the book rather than buying as the chapter is only 15 pages.
  • After this, reading chapter 1 of Process and Reality may be a good idea, as he lays out many of the goals of his philosophy. It is highly accessible and requires no advanced knowledge to read.
  • The book Modes of Thought can be found online here.  This is an excellent survey of Whitehead’s ideas, and with the knowledge provided by the above chapter, it should hopefully seem more than just a collection of platitudes. It is where I began, and while it was interesting, the subtlety of the concepts introduced in here required me to revisit it after reading Process and Reality. The concept of importance is actually foundational to his philosophy, though I did not notice it until rereading. This was his last work, and one of his best. Furthermore, it is quite short!
  • If it interests you, Science and the Modern World is an introduction to his earlier thought with some more direction as to the applicability of his philosophy. It should be noted, however, that his philosophy is significantly altered from this point on.
  • Afterwards, I recommend trying to read Process and Reality armed with your glossary. If you find yourself getting bogged down and confused, there are several secondary texts that can help you. I personally used A Key to Process and Reality, though I would actually recommend Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead, for it provides a close reading of Whitehead’s entire corpus.
  • This can be read before or after the previous entry, but whenever you choose, return to Adventures of Ideas. This is Whitehead’s mature work, written after Process and Reality and extends many of the discussions of that book, as well as developing a philosophy of history.

Whitehead’s other books are not nearly as gargantuan and intimidating as Process and Reality. With this list, you can be eased in to his vocabulary and style. In his less systematic works, he is a much better writer, and his personality and humor shines through the rigorous language. The most difficult parts of Whitehead can hopefully be avoided or softened by this strategy. Once you are able to speak Whiteheadese, and it all starts to snap into focus, it will be a pleasure to read and think with Whitehead.

 

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