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Alfred North Whitehead's Critique of Modern Materialism
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-05-12 09:00:54
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Alfred North Whitehead is widely considered one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. He quipped once that “the whole of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato,” which may sound like an exaggeration but not if we grasp his critique of modern materialism, that is to say a scheme of scientific thought framed by mathematicians for mathematicians. He actually began his career with such a scheme by writing, with Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica (1913), where we find an attempt to create a precise, logical, unambiguous and purely mathematical language. He soon disavowed such a scheme as impossible and in fact misguided.

Perhaps the best label for Whitehead’s philosophy is that of “philosophy of organism” wherein materialism is rejected in favor of a philosophy centered on the concepts of life, organism, function, instantaneous reality, interaction, order of nature. In other words, what Whitehead attempts to repair is the gap made by materialism which splits the notion of purpose, value and meaning from scientific explanation, and more often than not results in the rejection of religion as mere backward superstition and the embracing of atheism. Whitehead was much interested in religion as a cultural phenomenon and was convinced that materialism, buttressed by a science devoid of values and purpose, had gotten out of control in modern times.

Whitehead's intellectual life is often divided into three main periods. The first corresponds roughly with his time at Cambridge, from 1884 to 1910. It was during these years that he worked primarily on issues in mathematics and logic. It was also during this time that he collaborated with Russell. The second main period, covering the years from 1910 to 1924, corresponds with his time at London. During these years Whitehead concentrated mainly, but not exclusively, on issues in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of education. The third main period corresponds roughly with his time at Harvard, from 1924 onward. It was during this time that he worked on more general issues in philosophy, including the development of a comprehensive metaphysical system which has come to be known as process philosophy. Whitehead's philosophical influence can be felt in all three of the main areas in which he worked (i.e., logic and the foundations of mathematics, the philosophy of science, and metaphysics) as well as in other areas such as ethics, education and religion.

At the University of London, Whitehead turned his attention to issues in the philosophy of science. Of particular note was his rejection of the idea that each object has a simple spatial or temporal location. Instead, Whitehead advocated the view that all objects should be understood as fields having both temporal and spatial extensions. For example, just as we cannot perceive a Euclidean point that has position but no magnitude, or a line that has length but no breadth, it is impossible, says Whitehead, to conceive of a simple spatial or temporal location. To think that we can do so involves what he called "The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness," the error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete.

As Whitehead explains, it is his view "that among the primary elements of nature as apprehended in our immediate experience, there is no element whatever which possesses this character of simple location. … [Instead,] I hold that by a process of constructive abstraction we can arrive at abstractions which are the simply located bits of material, and at other abstractions which are the minds included in the scientific scheme.”

Whitehead's basic idea was that we obtain the abstract idea of a spatial point by considering the limit of a real-life series of volumes extending over each other, for example, a nested series of Russian dolls or a nested series of pots and pans. However, it would be a mistake to think of a spatial point as being anything more than an abstraction; instead, real positions involve the entire series of extended volumes. As Whitehead himself puts it, "In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world.” Further, according to Whitehead, every real-life object may be understood as a similarly constructed series of events and processes. It is this latter idea that Whitehead later systematically elaborates in his imposing Process and Reality, suggesting that process, rather than substance, should be taken as the fundamental metaphysical constituent of the world. Underlying this work was also the basic idea that, if philosophy is to be successful, it must explain the connection between objective, scientific and logical descriptions of the world and the more everyday world of subjective experience.

Upon being offered an appointment at Harvard, Whitehead moved to the United States in 1924. Given his prior training in mathematics and in the physical sciences, it was sometimes joked that the first philosophy lectures he ever attended were those that he himself delivered at Harvard in his new role as Professor of Philosophy. A year later he also delivered Harvard's prestigious Lowell Lectures which formed the basis for his first primarily metaphysical book, Science and the Modern World (1925). In it, he introduces several themes that later found fuller expression in Process and Reality. The same is true of the 1927/28 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh on which Process and Reality eventually came to be based.

In Process and Reality, rather than assuming substance as the basic metaphysical category, Whitehead introduces a new metaphysically primitive notion which he calls an actual occasion. On Whitehead's view, an actual occasion is not an enduring substance, but a process of becoming. As Donald Sherburne points out, "It is customary to compare an actual occasion with a Leibnizian monad, with the caveat that whereas a monad is windowless, an actual occasion is 'all window.' It is as though one were to take Aristotle's system of categories and ask what would result if the category of substance were displaced from its preeminence by the category of relation …." As Whitehead himself explains, his "philosophy of organism is the inversion of Kant's philosophy … For Kant, the world emerges from the subject; for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from the world."

Significantly, this view runs counter to more traditional views associated with material substance: "There persists," says Whitehead, "[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.' Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived."

The assumption of scientific materialism is effective in many contexts, says Whitehead, only because it directs our attention to a certain class of problems that lend themselves to analysis within this framework. However, scientific materialism is less successful when addressing issues of teleology and when trying to develop a comprehensive, integrated picture of the universe as a whole. According to Whitehead, recognition that the world is organic rather than materialistic is therefore essential, and this change in viewpoint can result as easily from attempts to understand modern physics as from attempts to understand human psychology and teleology. Says Whitehead, "Mathematical physics presumes in the first place an electromagnetic field of activity pervading space and time. The laws which condition this field are nothing else than the conditions observed by the general activity of the flux of the world, as it individualises itself in the events.” The end result is that Whitehead concludes that "nature is a structure of evolving processes. The reality is the process.”

Whitehead's ultimate attempt to develop a metaphysical unification of space, time, matter, events and teleology has proved to be controversial in a secular religionless world. In part, this may be because of the connections Whitehead saw between his metaphysics and traditional theism. According to Whitehead, religion is concerned with permanence amid change, and can be found in the ordering we find within nature, something he sometimes called the "primordial nature of God." Thus although not especially influential among contemporary Anglo-American secular philosophers, his metaphysical ideas have had significant influence among many theologians and philosophers of religion and has given birth to “Process Theology.”

Process and Reality, which is widely recognized as one of the greatest books in metaphysics. There he sets out his philosophy of organism and suggests that it is process rather than substance that should be taken as the fundamental metaphysical constituent of reality. He brings to the fore notions that are usually criticized by materialists as subjective, immaterial and non-factual, a hindrance to a science unencumbered by value judgments and therefore objective, and universally true. Whitehead finds such a view hypocritical and inconsistent. He asserts that in rejecting values in this way the materialist is also upholding a particular value system parading as universally true. Moreover, the history of science cannot be separated from the cultural, social and political environment in which it is pursued. History shows that generalizations from scientific research to political and social conclusions are widespread and that the values of society and the outcome of scientific research are not so clearly delineated as the materialist would hold.

Whitehead strongly suggests that in place of materialism, we operate with the concept of “organism” rather than with that of “substance”; of “event” rather than the parameters of space and time. In other words, what Whitehead attempts is an integration of science per se as part of the social sciences, thus turning up-side-down the modern trend to think of the social sciences, and even history itself, as mere “folk theories” or naïve scientific theories awaiting further development. In this regard Whitehead book titled Adventures of Ideas (1933) is crucial. This is a less technical work than most other writings of Whitehead, is assigned in most philosophy of science classes, and is a good point of entry into his thought. It considers the parts played by “brute forces” on one hand and aspirations and beliefs on the other in the development of Western Civilization. There is also a discussion of beauty, truth, art, peace and adventure. It is in some way a clarification and a distinguishing of genuine civilization from barbarism, be it the physical one or the intellectual one. Also highly recommendable is his Modes of Thought (1938) which examines some ultimate notions as they occur naturally in daily life. Two important notions there are “assemblage,” which is the creating of “notions of large, adequate generality,” and “importance” to which he accords a central role in the development of civilization.

But, to return to the reversing of modern trends, central to Whitehead’s project is a reinterpretation (today we would say “hermeneutics”) of what we understand by “nature.” Materialism has invariably conceived of nature as that which lies behind sense experience, that which is casually responsible for sense perception. This view logically engenders the split between primary and secondary qualities as first made explicit by Locke, where secondary qualities are thought to be merely ephemeral effects caused in the mind by primary qualities of objects. Whitehead thinks such a split unwarranted and undesirable; for if it is true, he writes, then “the poets are entirely mistaken.” Rather than praising the rose for its scent, or the nightingale for its song, “they should address their lyrics to themselves and should turn them into odes of self-congratulations on the excellency of the human mind.” Which is to say, for Whitehead nature is not the underlying causal substrate of our perceptual experience, but rather nothing more than that which is observed by perception. Science should address itself to the relations between perceptual events and do away with the outmoded claim to be investigating an underlying abstract “matter.”

Perhaps Whitehead was a bit ahead of his times, but there is little doubt that his philosophy of organism or process philosophy is one of the first systematic attempts of 20th century philosophy to break away from the traditional problems of contemporary philosophy. It is a source of stimulating and useful ideas to the growing number or philosophers and thinkers who, like Whitehead, see materialism as fundamentally wrong-headed springing from, and invariably leading back to the general nihilism and cultural philistinism of our times.

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professor funky2009-09-03 22:37:48
Thank you for a clear and accurate and informative summary.

Nate2011-04-20 11:18:55
I'm doing a paper on ANW and was having some trouble understanding some of his more unclear concepts but this article really brought his ideas into the clear. Thanks

Jeremy2012-06-11 15:01:28
Sincere thanks to you for providing a crystal clear exposition of Whitehead's thought. Having begun in fundamentalist religion, I eventually transitioned into full blown materialism, placing my hope in the quantification of all things. Yet I have increasingly begun to suspect that it was but a tool for a time.

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