A Science of Sciences according to A. N. Whitehead

Who’ll know aught living and describe it well,
Seeks first the spirit to expel.
He then has the component parts in hand
But lacks, alas! the spirit’s band.

—J. W. von Goethe, Faust

An aspiring botanist must contemplate any single flower from at least four seasons before he has begun to comprehend it, and the work of any great philosopher can demand no less-thorough consideration. Each perspective offers an unique insight into the work. In this way, every bona fide interpretation is a new theory (in the original sense of this word—i.e. theorein, “a way of seeing”), and as such, is entirely true but never exhaustively so. Indeed, every reading brings the work to a new completion, forever. One entry-point into a reading of the work of A. N. Whitehead is the theory that his philosophy was an attempt to redeem the Western worldview from the reductionism which had lain hold upon it since the Scientific Revolution, but to achieve this redemption without forfeiting the advances in knowledge that this reductionism had afforded. Indeed, Whitehead recognised that an undeniable progress of modern science had come at the expense of prioritising certain aspects of the world while ignoring others. Particularly, the cosmology of science had come to award the condition of reality only those aspects of the world which could be expressed as quantities. At the same time, the former denied this provision to those aspects of the world that could not. Whitehead appreciated the utility of abstracting measurable qualities of the world from their immeasurable context in order to create a schematised model of reality, provided one not mistake the model for the reality. Nevertheless, Whitehead held that this error constituted the definitive characteristic of modern science. Thus in his Lowell Lectures of 1925, collected into the book Science and the Modern World, one discovers Whitehead framing the project of philosophy as the shepherd of the disciplines, the science of sciences: “philosophy…is the critic of abstractions.”

That the philosopher is to be “the critic of abstractions” does not mean that she is to reject them altogether. Indeed Whitehead acknowledges that:

The advantage of confining attending to a definitive, clear cut set of abstraction is that you confine your thoughts to clear cut definite things, with a clear cut set of definite relations. Accordingly, if you have a logical head, you can deduce a variety of conclusions representing the relationships between these abstract entities. Furthermore, if these abstractions are well-founded, that is to say, they do not abstract everything that is important in experience, the scientific thought which confines itself to these abstractions will arrive at important truths relating to our experience of nature…The clear disadvantage of a group of abstractions, however well-founded, is that, by the nature of the case, you have abstracted from the remainder of things. Insofar as the excluded things are important in your experience, your modes of thought will not be fit to deal with them.

Whitehead continues with a pith expression of the philosopher’s task when he acknowledges that:

you cannot think without abstractions; accordingly, it is of utmost import to be vigilant in critically revising your particular modes of abstraction. It is here that philosophy finds its niche as essential to the healthy progress of society. It is the critic of abstractions. A civilisation which cannot burst through its current abstractions is doomed to sterility after a very limited period of progress. An active school of philosophy is quite as important for the locomotion of ideas as an active school of railway engineers for the locomotion of fuel.

Whitehead’s passing admonition strikes one today with a tragic prescience as, in our time, nearly an hundred years after their expression, our civilisation appears to have achieved such monomaniacal proficiency in the latter form of locomotion that the fate of the entire planet hangs in an ecological balance. One cannot help but conclude that progress in material locomotion has been won at the expense of barring circulation of the living spirit. In this way, and in spite of the ostentatious insistence of technological advancement and material prosperity, our civilisation has demonstrated an utter lapse into idolatry, and allowed a limited set of abstractions related to number, measure, and weight, to usurp the throne of wholeness.

Whitehead states his intention to usher in a twilight of these lifeless idols in the Gifford Lectures of 1927, which were later published as his magnum opus, Process and Reality. “Speculative philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted,” Whitehead writes. He explains the implication of this undertaking in his later work, Adventures of Ideas:

Nothing can be omitted, experience drunk and experience sober, experience sleeping and experience waking, experience drowsy and experience wide-awake, experience self-conscious and experience self-forgetful, experience intellectual and experience physical, experience religious and experience sceptical, experience anxious and experience care-free, experience anticipatory and experience retrospective, experience happy and experience grieving, experience dominated by emotion and experience under self-restraint, experience in the light and experience in the dark, experience normal and experience abnormal.

It will be evident to the reader that the default world-conception of science manages to account for only the smallest sliver of the full beatific spectrum of experience. At the same time, the materialistic world-conception ignores outright, or rejects as accidents of human psychosensory organisation, all of the inhabitants of the ontologic country that dwell outside of the faint and arbitrary border circumscribed by its favourite set of abstractions. A xenophobic cosmology that denies reality to value, beauty, and life, is a cosmology without meaning. In fact, the development of such a cosmology necessarily employs value to deny value in favour of blind and senseless matter, it employed an aesthetic preference for abstract simplicity in order ultimately to refuse a place for beauty in the household of reality, and it replaced the pulse of the living cosmos with the blind grinding of gears in a mechanistic model of an actually organic universe, entirely overlooking the fact that it is an analytic a priori judgment that lifeless machines, eo ipsis, are constructed according to a design in the mind of a living creator. Thus, mechanism presupposes organism and it is an hallmark of modernity’s “enfeebled thought” to uphold the “radical inconsistency” to accept an effect but deny a cause.

Diogenes Laërtius records the words of Heraclitus: “If you went in search of it, you would not find the boundaries of the soul, though you traveled every road-so deep is its lógos (Fragment 45).” To cleave reality is to cleave the soul. Whitehead recognised this cloven condition of the modern psyche and attempted to serve as a spiritual physician of sorts. Thus, in his work he strove to “to heal the wounds inflicted by reason,”1 which by the twentieth century, threatened to expel the human spirit from its temple in the living universe and replace the indwelling deity with cogs and pulleys. As William Wordsworth famously observed, “we murder to dissect.”2 However, as the words of Goethe in the epigraph suggested, the recombination has resulted not in resurrection but necromancy and humanity is left with a spectral Frankenstein’s-monster of a cosmology. Still, behind every mechanism is a living creator. As Whitehead writes, “The only way of mitigating mechanism is by the discovery that it is not mechanism.”3

1 Novalis

2 “The Tables Turned”

3 Science and the Modern World, 77.

Works Cited

von Goethe, J. W., Faust. George Madison Priest translation. http://www.levity.com/alchemy/faust05.html.

Accessed 2017-9-24

Hicks, R. D. Diogenes Laertius: Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Loeb Classical Library, 1925.

Whitehead, Alfred North

—Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961).

—Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978).

—Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960).

Wordsworth, William. “The Tables Turned.” http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww134.html. Accessed 2017-9-24


One thought on “A Science of Sciences according to A. N. Whitehead

  1. “He then has the component parts in hand
    But lacks, alas! the spirit’s band.’
    —J. W. von Goethe, Faust

    Despair not, for the Spirit is, for him, at hand; or might we more accurately say, “…the Spirit lives in the works performed BY his hand,” should he choose to partner up with it.

    To understand the “Idea of Cognition” is to create it out of Spirit; out of our Spirit striving.

    “Now if the activity of intentionality must precede any phenomenal result, then it also follows that all phenomena are cognitions — are a unity of intention and sensation. The spatial relations in which we contextualize the sensible situation of Figure 4 ( see text drawing) are the very geometrical concepts by which we grasp the resulting configuration. Phenomena can appear only to a mode of understanding by which we think, or mean, them, and we must mean them before they become apparent. Phenomenal appearance emerges as a kind “mirroring” of the intended relations, which must reflect back to the thinker his or her own intention, but now individualized and concrete. At the “moment of actuality” the phenomenon and the understanding by which it is recognized are not separable.”

    “I have spent a good deal of time on intentionality due to my impression that Steiner’s epistemological arguments cannot be understood without a sense of thinking that is intentional rather ( page 27 ).

    than propositional.” Ron Brady.


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