First, a few words about the philosopher himself...
Alfred North Whitehead
Alfred North Whitehead is an English mathematician and philosopher. He wrote many papers, essays and books about mathematics and logic, including "A Treatise on Universal Algebra." In fact, he was the co-author of the Principia Mathematica, collaborating with the infamous mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell – who was actually one of his students. The Principia Mathematica is considered by most specialists to be one of the most important and seminal works in mathematical logic and philosophy – so if I seem to be overly enamored with Whitehead, you know why.
He was also quiet interested in physics, biology, the philosophy of science, and the theory and practices of education. I'm yet to read any of his books or writings on these subjects, however.
I first came to know about Whitehead through the recorded lectures of Terence McKenna, a man whom I deeply respect and admire. He repeatedly mentioned and referred to Whitehead's ideas about the processual nature of the world and how nature seems to be biased toward the creation and the conservation of novelty. His ideas seemed interesting enough, and they resonated very well with my own unstructured thoughts and speculations, so I made it a point to study his work more closely. About a month ago, I finally decided it was about time that I took a good look at his magnum opus on this subject, Process and Reality.
Now, please bear in mind that I have yet to finish the book, so the following are, as I already mentioned, merely my preliminary impressions and thoughts, and they reflect only my current understanding of the philosophy.
The Philosophy of Organism, as Whitehead himself calls it – or Process Philosophy, as it is more widely known – is a system of metaphysical speculations which aspire to describe the world in concrete, distinct, and comprehensive terms. First, let me clarify what I mean by "speculations..."
A Speculative Philosophy
Whitehead strongly believed that "philosophy has been haunted by the unfortunate notion that its method is dogmatically to indicate premises which are severally clear, distinct, and certain; and to erect upon those premises a deductive system of thought. But the accurate expression of the final generalities is the goal of discussion and not its origin."
It took me a while to understand the full magnitude of this simple statement. For one, I've spent the better part of my life considering myself to be a skeptic. I used to get my kicks from poking holes in speculative theories and unfounded assumptions. Lately, however, I've come to realize that skepticism isn't always the best method of dealing with things, although it certainly has its good place. But that's another discussion...
The notion that this passage implies, and which Whitehead examines in great detail as well, is that "imagination" is the vehicle for any serious advance in thought. This is the part that the scientific, Baconian method of induction left out of its declaration, even though it couldn't – and can't – do without in practice.
Imagine an advance in thought and understanding – be it scientific, philosophic, or otherwise – as an airplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation, where immediate experience provides us with a lot of input and data. Then it makes a flight in the thin air of the imagination, where we try to make sense of these data and come up with a system of generalization that binds them together into a sensible, coherent whole. Then it again lands for renewed observation couple with rational interpretation.
The tricky thing about imagination is that it cannot be subject to strict logic. You have to let your mind wander freely and unrestrictedly for a while. Censorship of free adventures of imagination effectively kills it and renders it totally pointless. That doesn't mean that logic doesn't have its place in this deal. Indeed, the results, but absolutely not the process, of the imaginative wanderings must be subject to the scrutiny of logical examination.
What this means is that we shouldn't judge a philosophy by how logical, coherent, or justifiable its premises are; we should reserve this judgment for its final statements and general success. The criteria for this judgment should definitely include coherence, logicality, applicability and adequacy, criteria which Whitehead defines thoroughly in the first chapter of the Part One of the book.
Whitehead also gives one of the most beautiful definitions of "philosophy" that I've ever read...
Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity... It replaces in rational experience what has been submerged in the higher sensitive experience and has been sunk yet deeper by the initial operations of consciousness itself.
Now, let's get to some general concepts from the Philosophy of Organism itself, as I understand them so far...
Some Highlights of Process Philosophy
The most noticeable thing about this philosophy is the premium it puts on "creativity." In fact, Whitehead speculates that creativity is the ultimate metaphysical principle.
What he means by "creativity" is the advance from disjunction to conjunction, creating novel entities, occasions, and events. In his words...
The many are one, and are increased by one.
Another prominent observation is the attention and the significance he gives to "experience." For most of my life, I had generally adopted the belief that "consciousness" was the ultimate matter of fact. I had the vague notion that consciousness is somehow the entire "substance" of existence, although I couldn't – or didn't take the time to – clearly define what this meant. However, even having read only one third of Whitehead's book, I'm starting to rethink this notion. Whitehead delves into this topic in great detail, but here's a summarization of his thoughts on it...
Consciousness presupposes experience, and not experience consciousness. It is a special element in the subjective forms of some feelings. Thus an actual entity may, or may not, be conscious of some part of its experience. Its experience is its complete formal constitution, including its consciousness, if any.
Trust me, this will make a lot more sense after reading the first 50 pages or so of the book.
But the true crux of Whiteheadian metaphysics is that the world is best viewed and understood in terms of "processes" rather than "things." He does believe that the actual world is atomic, but he also believe that the "atoms" are not material objects, but rather "occasions in the process of becoming." In my understanding, he stresses that nothing can actually "be," since once something "is" it ceases to exist in "subjective immediacy" and passes into "objective immortality."
The first two parts of this 5-part book are devoted to the definition and elaboration of what Whitehead speculates are the "building blocks" of the world. These include "actual entities," "prehensions," "nexus," "societies," etc. If this sounds complicated, let me assure you... it IS complicated!
One of the things I'm enjoying most about this metaphysical system is how well it seems to correspond with our physical reality. I realize this is to be expected from, even demanded of, any philosophy. But it usually takes me some time and a great deal of intimate familiarity with a metaphysical system before my mind manages to apply its principles to the many aspects of perceived reality.
However, with Whitehead's philosophy, I can see those applications almost immediately across a wide range of variety of instances. It's naturally applicable to human beings, human interactions, history, and societies. But it's even simpler to see its applications in physics.
For example, if we substitute his concept of a "quantitative emotional intensity" with the term energy and his concept of "specific forms of feelings" with the term forms of energy, we'll find that his "datum" is the basis of the vector-theory, and that the "quantitative satisfaction" in his metaphysics is the basis of the scalar localization of energy in physics. So far as I understand all these concepts, of course.
This is probably due to the attention he pays to immediate experience. It seems that his imaginative speculations are always derived absolutely from his perceptions of reality, not from pure noetic ramblings. This is best illustrated in his own words...
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.
An added bonus to Whitehead's cosmological accounts would be if it included a discussion of ethics and morality. It seems that such a discussion may actually be present in the later portions of the book, since Part One includes the following passage, which seems to indicate that a more detailed examination will follow...
Morality of outlook is inseparably conjoined with generality of outlook. The antithesis between the general good and the individual interest can be abolished only when the individual is such that its interest is the general good.
As I said, I haven't finished reading the book yet, so I can't write more about its content and conclusions. But I can give some general advice based on my experience if you're going to read it...
How to Read Process and Reality?
First of all, the edition I have is the corrected edition, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. It seems to be fairly accurate and honestly representative of Whitehead's original manuscript, even though I naturally can't be sure of this.
Process and Reality is a very complicated and dense reading. You'll need to arm yourself with self-discipline, patience, and perseverance. There will be a lot of frustrating moments when you'll want to shred the book and throw it into the nearest trash can. But if you're the type who enjoys a true mental stretch, you'll also have plenty of "a-ha" moments, even if you don't fully agree with the conclusions.
I think the ideal way to read this book is the "multi-pass" method, i.e. you go through it in a quick initial read to get the general idea, and then you give it a deep, contemplative read. This is because first third of the book – the part which I've read so far – is extremely abstractive and general, and the author occasionally explains some terms and ideas far from where he first mentions them. He doesn't seem to leave anything unexplained – at least, so far – but he definitely keeps you wondering sometimes.
If you're familiar with 17th century and later philosophy, you'll have a great advantage here, since the Philosophy of Organism seems to me to accept large portions of the ideas of Hume, Descartes, Kant and Locke, with the exception of a few presuppositions.
A Conclusion of Sorts
I hope to write more about this philosophy as I become more acquainted with it. It's definitely very interesting and it makes a lot of sense to me, even though there are certain notions that are not exactly my taste. Perhaps my mind will change, one way or the other, after finishing the book.
Aside from that, I want to read some of Whitehead's other books, since he seems to have a lot of interesting science-related ideas, such as a rival theory to Einstein's theory of relativity, an "epochal" theory of time, and a few other controversial, but hopefully solid, speculations and hypotheses.
I'll probably add to these initial thoughts as I progress through the book. If you have any thoughts, comments, or criticisms, especially if you're familiar with the philosophy, please feel more than welcome to share :-)