The Speculative Theodyssey of A. N. Whitehead: (3) Metaphysics

With the modicum of acquaintance we may have gained with these several players who collaborate through prehensile relativity to weave the pansentient universe, we may now bend the path of our inquiry to the weft, which is to say, actual experience. Whitehead’s cosmology stands out in the history of the discipline in that the former places metaphysical value on experience. It accomplishes this, however, without sacrificing logical rigour in the manner of the philosopher David Hume, for instance, who famously denied the principle of causality for the reason that it does not present itself for immediate apprehension by the senses. In contrast to the Empiricist tradition, which may also be called “Dogmatism of the Senses,” many world-conceptions reject precisely this most immediate advent of reality and attempt instead to replace living experience with a model of it. Conventional scientific materialism provides an example of this archetypal impulse of thought in its basic substitution of quantity for quality. The Kantian tradition offers another example of the same in its hypostatisation of unknowable noumena as the “Things-in-Themselves” of manifest phenomena. To wit, the hyper-intelligent thinker posits an hypothetical reality outside of experience and then subsequently ignores his own deed. The result of such a concatenation is that a representation is taken for reality in the process which the inestimable Owen Barfield referred to as philosophic “idolatry.” Immanuel Kant, indeed, posited an epistemologically-inaccessible world of “Things-in-Themselves” and overlooked the fact that he himself dictated the terms of its unknowability through his own ratiocination. As we indicated above, although the connection may come as a surprise, modern scientists often engage in what is, in principle, the same legerdemain as “The Sage of Königsberg” when they posit all manner of elementary waves and particles behind phenomenal appearance. The former consist in sheer quantity and have no quality whatsoever other than that which the scientist has abstracted from her actual experience and grafted-on to her thought-model, like mass and spin for instance. Because quality is the constitutive principle of actual experience, an abstract model of reality consisting entirely in quantity and only virtual quality can never be experienced; it can never “ingress into actuality through the prehension of (societies of) actual occasions,” as it were. Again, the reason for this epistemic prohibition is none other than the hypostasis that was implicit in the terms of its original invention. As tempting as it would be to polemicise this tendency, many far wiser thinkers than the writer of this piece have already undertaken such a project. Whitehead himself, for example, writes of

the complete muddle in scientific thought, in philosophic cosmology, and in epistemology” after “every single item in this general doctrine is denied, but that the general conclusions from the doctrine as a whole are tenaciously retained. The result is a complete muddle in scientific thought, in philosophic cosmology, and in epistemology.

In fidelity to both experience and reason, therefore, Whitehead begins the first chapter of his magnum opus with the following stipulation, which is to chart the course of his entire philosophical adventure: “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.” If this initially appears to be an unassuming task, then one has failed to grasp Whitehead’s meaning. Whitehead’s opening represents a no-less ambitious undertaking than to formulate a theory of everything—the “World in a Grain of Sand,” the infinite universe as comprehended in experience by definite occasion. One must indeed admire Whitehead’s aspiration irrespective of one’s estimation of his success. Whitehead continues in the opening of Process & Reality:

By this notion of interpretation I mean that everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme. Thus the philosophical scheme should be coherent, logical, and, in respect to its interpretation, applicable and adequate. Here applicable means that some items of experience are thus interpretable, and adequate means that there are no items incapable of such interpretation…

In Whitehead’s counterposition of “the particular instance” and “the general scheme,” we discover again an allusion to the great mystery of the one and the many, as well as a recognition of the extraordinary balancing-act that any comprehensive system of philosophy must achieve: the conjugation of immediate experience and logic, Empiricism and Rationalism. Whitehead indicates the former aspect when he writes that:

Our datum is the actual world, including ourselves; and this actual world spreads itself for observation in the guise of the topic of our immediate experience. The elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought; and the starting-point for thought is the analytic observation of components of this experience. But we are not conscious of any clear-cut complete analysis of immediate experience, in terms of the various details which comprise its definiteness…

Whitehead explicitly recognises the latter aspect when he describes “[the] second condition for the success of imaginative construction [as] the unflinching pursuit of the two rationalistic ideals, coherence and logical perfection.” To weave Whitehead into to the mythic history of Western philosophy, we could imagine that he joins the historically-sundered strands that began with Plato and his most famous disciple, respectively. In this way, the philosopher as visionary and the philosopher as scientist may again coincide. Whitehead recognises the essential importance of philosophy when he writes that

The sort of ideas we attend to, and the sort of ideas which we push into the negligible background, govern our hopes, our fears, our control of behaviour. As we think, we live. This is why the assemblage of philosophic ideas is more than a specialist study. It moulds our type of civilization.

Any human organism or organisation that lacks soundness within and amongst its ideas must be deemed unhealthy because it is splintered, fragmented, and therefore not whole. Whitehead diagnoses precisely such philosophical schizophrenia when he writes that

At present the scientific world is suffering from a bad attack of muddle-headed positivism, which arbitrarily applies its doctrine and arbitrarily escapes from it. The whole doctrine of life in nature has suffered from this positivist taint.

No one would think to dispute the truth of garbanzo beans or Christmas cookies; instead the latter are measured according to their value. As the famous phrase reminds us, however, “Man does not live by bread alone.” A diet of “muddle-headed positivism, which arbitrarily applies its doctrine and arbitrarily escapes from it” may appear defensible on the grounds of abstract logic, but it can hardly serve as nourishment for the soul and spirit. “Health” is from Old English hælþ, meaning “wholeness, a being whole, sound or well,” and can claim the modern English words “whole” and “hale” as cognative cousins. Thus, Whitehead, as both metaphysicist and metaphysician, frames a speculative philosophy and formulates a concrete one—which is to say, a concrescent, or “grown together” ideal coherence, as the healing of a wound. The former offers a visionary cosmology and the latter a remedy for the fragmented human soul.

With this perspective we have arrived at a mountaintop of sorts in this exploration, and in our contemplation the truth may suddenly dawn,

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

As T. S. Eliot writes in the end of Four Quartets. Even as the light of vast expanses twinkled in the mirror-eye of every snowflake, so we discover in this moment all of history in condensation. Space and time in their entirety always find reflection in every actual occasion. From this vista we can finally contemplate the dual nature of Whitehead’s God.

In a survey of the surrounding space, in which a single glance may apprehend the heavens and the earth, we may behold the consequent face of God. In retrospection of our journey, we may furthermore recognise the continual incarnation of God’s primordial nature into His consequent nature with every footstep along the way. Every actual occasion flashes as the metaphysical inflection-point in which subject becomes superject, seed-potential becomes consummate fact—eternity enters into time, and then achieves eternity again but in a new form. The new timelessness is as objective fact, recorded in the crystalline memory of space. Goethe achieves the heights of poetic exultation at the end of his life when he expresses this transformation in the final lines of Faust:

Earth’s insufficiency
Here finds fulfilment;
The indescribable
Here becomes deed;
The eternal-feminine
Draws us on high.

Goethe’s eternal-feminine is a lure of possibility; the womb of the future out of which every moment is born anew. Whitehead describes this highest mystery:

Now process is the way by which the universe escapes from the exclusions of inconsistency. Such exclusions belong to the finitude of circumstance. By means of process, the universe escapes from the limitations of the finite. Process is the immanence of the infinite in the finite; whereby all bounds are burst, and all inconsistencies dissolved.

In mountaintop reflection over our adventure, we recognise that the laboratory for this transmutation was and remains our own soul, and the soul of every being. Whitehead expresses this revelation when he writes that “the whole universe consists of elements disclosed in the experiences of subjects.” Meister Eckhart lends further enunciation to this loftiest epiphany that is the coincidence of the definite and the infinite, The Many and the One: “It must therefore be known that to know God and to be known by God is the same. We know God and see Him in that He makes us to see and to know.” The primordial nature of God envisions the full-blossom already in the emerging bud, and beholds God’s consequent nature as the forever-unfolding flower:

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Works Cited, thanks to:

Bakewell, Clyde. Sourcebook in Ancient Philosophy. New York, 1909.

Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances. Wesleyan Press, 1988.

Eliot, T. S. The Four Quartets. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1943.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1995.

von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust, (1831) trans. A. S. Kline. Poetry in Translation, 2008.

“Metamorphosis of Plants.” Goethe: Scientific Studies; the Collected Works, Vol. 12. Edited and translated by Douglas Miller. Princeton University Press, 1995.

Meister Eckhart. Sermons of Meister Eckhart, trans. Claud Field. The text of this document is from a public

domain resource first published around 1909. No publication date appears in the work itself. https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/Sermons_(Meister_Eckhart).

Rukeyser, Muriel. “The Speed of Darkness.” Available at:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56287/the-speed-of-darkness

Segall, Matthew Tarnas. Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to

Contemporary Scientific Cosmology. Lulu Press, 2016.

Steiner, Rudolf. Goethe’s World View (1897) trans. William Lindeman. New York: Mercury Press, 1985.

—Metamorphoses of the Soul: Volume One (1909) trans., C. Davy and C. von Arnim. The Rudolf Steiner Press, 1983.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Modes of Thought. New York: Macmillan, 1938.

—Process and Reality. An Essay in Cosmology. Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh During the Session 1927–1928. New York: Macmillan, 1929.

—Science and the Modern World. New York: Macmillan Company, 1925.

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