Epoché V, Ep. 6: Science and the Modern World, Ch. IX

Date: 2nd September 2021

Presenter: Timotej Prosen

Chapter: Ch. IX “Science and Philosophy”

Keywords: Francisco Varela, William James, Samuel Alexander, Friedrich Nietzsche, cognition, whole, part, prehension, idealism, science, philosophy, time, cosmology



00:00 (Timotej): Chapter IX.


28:35 (Matt): Whitehead’s familiarity with German idealism; Whitehead not recognising that Schelling’s work was a kind of precursors to his own philosophy.

33:11 (Timotej and Matt): Whitehead and Nietzsche; Charles Hartshorne gave Whitehead a copy of Nietzsche’s Will to Power; in the book Nietzsche was arguing that reality was constructed from centres of force (perspectivism).

35:23 (Matt): Does Whitehead succumb to solipsism?Whitehead’s understanding of sympathy (in Process and Reality he even tackles the notion of telepathy).

39:00 (Timotej): Unlike Whitehead, cognitive science still understands conciseness in representational terms; the asymmetrical character of prehensions might be problematic.

42:05 (Matt): The transmission of a series of modifications between the whole and the parts; for Whitehead plant bodies are organised as democracies and animal bodies are organised as monarchies; in Process and reality Whitehead says: “We find ourselves in a buzzing word, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.” (PR 50); hierarchies of feeling.

44:35 (Miha): Alexander’s conception of cognition as a kind of relation (a togetherness of the cognizing and the cognised); the notion of compresence.

47:24 (Matt): Whitehead’s notion of cognition follows from his critique of substance; Where is the Sun in relation with us? In terms of Whitehead’s terminology, the Sun is wherever its activity extends.

49:32 (Miha and Matt): Alexander von Humboldt as a pioneer thinker of interconnected systems (ecological systems); Robert J. Richards, “the romantic Darwin”.

52:33 (Matt): Whitehead gives allot of weight to William James’s philosophy as inaugurating a new epoch.

55:04 (Miha): Zeno’s paradox and the notion of time as tying together James, Whitehead, Bergson and Alexander.

58:28 (Timotej): The 21st century could be considered Jamesian – at least with regards to the paradigmatic shift from representationism to enactivism in cognitive science; it is a kind of pity that Varela’s theory came to rely so heavily on phenomenology and not process philosophy.

1:03:22 (Primož): Similar to Whitehead’s (un)familiarity with German idealism, Varela was also oblivious of a whole host of thinkers. Since both thinkers heralded from the sciences, they most likely lacked formal training in the history of philosophy

1:05:59 (Matt): Both thinkers (Whitehead and Varela) recognised that philosophy was quite significant in shaping the imaginative background; the difference between science and philosophy is one between the specific and the general.

1:07:40 (Primož): How do we do this work of harmonising science and philosophy?

1:09:43 (Miha): Whitehead is a kind of cavalier thinker who is freely picking and choosing between different thinkers (like Descartes and Locke) and not getting to caught up in a scholarly classification.

1:13:12 (Maks): Similar to Wolfram in physics Whitehead has a kind of theory of everything for philosophy; his approach to philosophy is subsuming all the other philosophical schools or theories under this one paradigm; Davor Löffler in connection with Whitehead; process emulative recursion; processual platonic forms.

1:17:51 (Matt): For Plato and Aristotel the bifurcation of nature did not exist, there was no split between subject and object, fact and value, purpose and mechanism; Whitehead is trying to restore a more ancient sense of cosmology; such an understanding would not only include science, but also our aesthetic intuitions, our religious and spiritual values and especially religious experience (cf. William James, Variety of Religious Experience)

1:24:54 (Primož): Philosophy as a way of life (cf. Pierre Hadot); in ancient times philosophy was done from existential need and only later with the development of schools – which only mimicked the predecessors – did it turn into a self-serving philosophy.

1:26:52 (Timotej): Whitehead does not postulate a past in which the three notions of the Good, the True and the Beautiful were somehow already optimally interrelated (in a way that Husserl does when mentioning the pre-Galilean, pre-Newtonian period of science); philosophy as an experimentation with ways of life

Plant of the week:

Bermudiana or blue-eyed-grass (Sisyrinchium bermudiana, sl. bermudski modri meček; it belongs to the iris family, Iridaceae, sl. perunikovke) is a national plant of Bermuda. It is nevertheless not endemic there, as it appears to be native to Ireland and likely to Central Europe as well. Despite its charismatic violet flowers adorned with a contrasting yellow patch at the center, the species is hard to spot for most of the season. Its blooming period lasts only for a day or two, and the flowers only open in the bright sunlight. When it is not flowering, its grasslike leaves remain well concealed among the leaves of true grasses (Poaceae). The plant’s appearance is quite peculiar, as one may get the impression that its leaves and flowers are both growing out of leaves; the latter “leaves”, however, are really a flattened stem.

Abridgment of Ch. IX

By: Miha Flere

Chapter IX: Science and Philosophy, p. 172-194

(p. 172) In this lecture Whitehead will consider some reactions of science upon the stream of philosophic thought during the modern centuries.

For this reason, the whole of the great German idealistic movement will be ignored, as being out of effective touch with its contemporary science so far as reciprocal modification of concepts is concerned. Kant, from whom this movement took its rise, was saturated with Newtonian physics, and with the ideas of the great French physicists—such as Clairaut, for instance—who developed the Newtonian ideas. This, for Whitehead, was lacking in later philosophers who developed the Kantian school of thought, or who transformed it into Hegelianism.

(p. 173) The origin of modern philosophy is analogous to that of science, and is contemporaneous. The general trend of its development was settled in the seventeenth century, partly at the hands of the same men who established the scientific principle.

This settlement of purpose followed upon a transitional period dating from the fifteenth century.

[The 17. century] can shortly be characterised as being the direct recurrence to the original sources of Greek inspiration on the part of men whose spiritual shape had been derived from inheritance from the Middle Ages. In truth there was no revival of the Greek mentality, because the epochs do not rise from the dead.

Philosophy is peculiarly sensitive to such differences. For, whereas you can make a replica of an ancient statue, there is no possible replica of an ancient state of mind.

In the particular case of philosophy, the distinction in tonality lies on the surface. Modern philosophy is tinged with subjectivism, as against the objective attitude of the ancients. The same change is to be seen in religion with the Reformation.

(p. 174) The individual subject of experience had been substituted for the total drama of all reality. Luther asked, “How am I justified?”; modern philosophers have asked, “How do I have knowledge?”

Whitehead elaborates this point of the individual subject of experience through examples from Descartes Discourse on Method and Meditations

There is a subject receiving experience: in the Discourse this subject is always mentioned in the first person, that is to say, as being Descartes himself. Descartes starts with himself as being a mentality, which in virtue of its consciousness of its own inherent presentations of sense and of thought, is thereby conscious of its own existence as a unit entity.

The ancient world took its stand upon the drama of the universe, the modern world upon the inward drama of the Soul.

Descartes, in his Meditations, expressly grounds the existence of this inward drama upon the possibility of error. (p. 175) There may be no correspondence with objective fact, and thus there must be a soul with activities whose reality is purely derivative from itself. Here, Whitehead is referring to Meditations II and III (Veitch’s translation).

The objectivism of the medieval and the ancient worlds passed over into science. Nature is there conceived as for itself, with its own mutual reactions. Under the recent influence of relativity, there has been a tendency towards subjectivist formulations. But, apart from this recent exception, nature, in scientific thought, has had its laws formulated without any reference to dependence on individual observers.

The anti-rationalism of the moderns has checked any attempt to harmonise the ultimate concepts of science with ideas drawn from a more concrete survey of the whole of reality

(p. 176) Philosophers are rationalists. They are seeking to go behind stubborn and irreducible facts: they wish—to explain in the light of universal principles the mutual reference between the various details entering into the flux of things. Also, they seek such principles as will eliminate mere arbitrariness; so that, whatever portion of fact is assumed or given, the existence of the remainder of things shall satisfy some demand of rationality. They demand meaning.

Here Whitehead is referring to Henry Sidgwick (A Memoir, Appendix I).

Accordingly, the bias towards history on the part of the physical and social sciences with their refusal to rationalise below some ultimate mechanism, has pushed philosophy out of the effective currents of modern life. It has lost its proper role as a constant critic of partial formulations. It has retreated into the subjectivist sphere of mind, by reason of its expulsion by science from the objectivist sphere of matter.

(p. 177) With the twentieth century a new act commences. It is an exaggeration to attribute a general change in a climate of thought to any one piece of writing, or to any one author.

Whitehead now draws on a certain contrast between Descartes (Discourse on Method, 1637) and William James (Does Consciousness Exist, 1904).

(p. 178) The scientific materialism (m) and the Cartesian Ego (e) were both challenged at the same moment, one by science and the other by philosophy, as represented by William James with his psychological antecedents; and the double challenge marks the end of a period which lasted for about two hundred and fifty years. In short, James had challenged the idea that consciousness is a “stuff” (m) and that consciousness is not an entity but a function (e)

(p. 179) Whitehead is here purposely construing James as denying exactly what Descartes asserts in his Discourse and his Meditations [that there are two species of entities, matter and soul].

Whitehead gives additional examples from Descartes Fifty-first and Fifty-third Sections of Part I of his Principles of Philosophy. There it is pointed out the minds and bodies exist in such a way as to stand in need of nothing beyond themselves individually; that both minds and bodies endure, because without endurance they would cease to exist; that spatial extension is the essential attribute of bodies; and that cogitation is the essential attribute of minds.

(p. 180) After the seventeenth century, science took charge of the materialistic nature, and philosophy took charge of the cogitating minds.

We are aware of nature as an interplay of bodies, colours, sounds, scents, tastes, touches and other various bodily feelings, displayed as in space, in patterns of mutual separation by intervening volumes, and of individual shape. Also the whole is a flux, changing with the lapse of time. This systematic totality is disclosed to us as one complex of things. But the seventeenth century dualism cuts straight across it.

(p. 181) The objective world of science was confined to mere spatial material with simple location in space and time, and subjected to definite rules as to its locomotion.

The subjective world of philosophy annexed the colours, sounds scents, tastes, touches, bodily feelings, as forming the subjective content of the cogitations of the individual minds.

The cogitations of mind exhibit themselves as holding up entities, such as colours for instance, before the mind as the termini of contemplation. But in this theory these colours are, after all, merely the furniture of the mind. Accordingly, the mind seems to be confined to its own private world of cogitations.

Thus the question as to how any knowledge is obtained of the truly objective world of science becomes a problem of the first magnitude.

(p. 182) Referring back to Descartes (Meditation II) Whitehead points out that the use of the Latin word inspection is associated in its classical use with the notion of theory as opposed to practice.

The study of mind divides into (p) psychology, or the study of mental functionings as considered in themselves and in their mutual relations, and into (e) epistemology, or the theory of the knowledge of a common objective world. There is the study of (p) the cogitations, qua passions of the mind, and (e) their study qua leading to an inspection (intuition) of an objective world.

The [Cartesian balance between the physical and the mental, the objective and the subjective] was upset by the rise of physiology.

In considering the human body, Descartes thought with the outfit of a physicist; whereas the modern physiologists are clothed with the mentalities of medical physiologists. The career of William James is an example of this change in standpoint.

(p. 183) The reason Whitehead put Descartes and James in close juxtaposition is that neither philosopher finished an epoch by a final solution of a problem. They each of them opened an epoch by their clear formulation of terms in which thought could profitably express itself at particular stages of knowledge, one for the seventeenth century, the other for the twentieth century.

An even more characteristic contrast lies for Whitehead between (a) Locke and (b) Bergson.

(a) Locke developed the lines of thought which kept philosophy on the move; for example, he emphasised the appeal to psychology. He initiated the age of epoch-making enquiries into urgent problems of limited scope. Undoubtedly, in so doing, he infected philosophy with something of the anti-rationalism of science. But the very groundwork of a fruitful methodology is to start from those clear postulates which must be held to be ultimate so far as concerns the occasion in question.

(b) Bergson introduced into philosophy the organic conceptions of physiological science. He has most completely moved away from the static materialism of the seventeenth century. His protest against spatialisation is a protest against taking the Newtonian conception of nature as being anything except a high abstraction. His so-called anti-intellectualism should be construed in this sense. In some respects, he recurs to Descartes; but the recurrence is accompanied with an instinctive grasp of modern biology.

(p. 184) The germ of an organic theory of nature is to be found in Locke. His most recent expositor, Professor Gibson [Locke’s Theory of Knowledge and its Historical Relations, Camb. Univ. Press, 1917] states that Locke’s way of conceiving the identity of self-consciousness “like that of a living organism, involves a genuine transcending of the mechanical view of nature and of mind, embodied in the composition theory.” But it is to be noticed that in the first place Locke wavers in his grasp of this position; and in the second place, what is more important still, he only applies his idea to self-consciousness. The physiological attitude has not yet established itself. The effect of physiology was to put mind back into nature.

(i) The neurologist traces first the effect of, stimuli along the bodily nerves, then integration at nerve centres, and finally the rise of a projective reference beyond the body with a resulting motor efficacy in renewed nervous excitement.

(ii) In biochemistry, the delicate adjustment of the chemical composition of the parts to the preservation of the whole organism is detected.

Thus the mental cognition is seen as the reflective experience of a totality, reporting for itself what it is in itself as one unit of occurrence. This unit is the integration of the sum of its partial happenings, but it is not their numerical aggregate. It has its own unity as an event. This total unity, considered as an entity for its own sake, is the prehension into unity of the patterned aspects of the universe of events. Its knowledge of itself arises from its own relevance to the things of which it prehends the aspects. It knows the world as a system of mutual relevance, and thus sees itself as mirrored in other things. These other things include more especially the various parts of its own body.

(p. 185) It is important to discriminate the (Bp) bodily pattern, which endures, from the (Be) bodily event, which is pervaded by the enduring pattern [that is the bodily pattern], and from the (PBe) parts of the bodily event.

There is an intimate character of the relation of the whole to part. Thus the body is a portion of the environment for the part, and the part is a portion of the environment for the body. This special reciprocity is associated with the notion of organism, in which the part is for the whole; but this relation reigns throughout nature and does not start with the special case of the higher organisms.

(p. 186) The mode of approach to the problem, so far as science is concerned, is merely to ask if molecules exhibit in living bodies properties which are not to be observed amid inorganic surroundings. In the same way, in a magnetic field soft iron exhibits magnetic properties which are in abeyance elsewhere.

We can now see the relation of psychology to physiology and to physics. The private psychological field is merely the event considered from its own standpoint. The unity of this field is the unity of the event. But it is the event as one entity, and not the event as a sum of parts. The relations of the parts, to each other and to the whole, are their aspects, each in the other.

(p. 187) We must also allow for the possibility that we can detect in ourselves direct aspects of the mentalities of higher organisms. The claim that the cognition of alien mentalities must necessarily be by means of indirect inferences from aspects of shape and of sense-objects is wholly unwarranted by this philosophy of organism. The fundamental principle is that whatever merges into actuality, implants its aspects in every individual event.

The self-knowledge inherent in the bodily event is the knowledge of itself as a complex unity, whose ingredients involve all reality beyond itself, restricted under the limitation of its pattern of aspects. Thus we know ourselves as a function of unification of a plurality of things which are other than ourselves. Cognition discloses an event as being an activity, organising a real togetherness of alien things.

Accordingly, consciousness will be the function of knowing. But what is known is already a prehension of aspects of the one real universe.

The aboriginal data in terms of which the pattern weaves (p. 188) itself are the aspects of shapes, of sense-objects, and of other eternal objects whose self-identity is not dependent on the flux of things. They are here in the perceiver; but, as perceived by him, they convey for him something of the total flux which is beyond himself. Thus no individual subject can have independent reality, since it is a prehension of limited aspects of subjects other than itself.

The technical phrase “subject-object” is a bad term for the fundamental situation disclosed in experience. It is really reminiscent of the Aristotelian “subject-predicate”. It already presupposes the metaphysical doctrine of diverse subjects qualified by their private predicates. This is the doctrine of subjects with private worlds of experience. If this be granted, there is no escape from solipsism.

(p. 189) The point to be made for the purposes of the present discussion is that a philosophy of nature as organic (o) must start at the opposite end to that requisite for a materialistic (m) philosophy.

(m) The materialistic starting point is from independently existing substances, matter and mind. The matter suffers modifications of its external relations of locomotion, and the mind suffers modifications of its contemplated objects. There are, in this materialistic theory, two sorts of independent substances, each qualified by their appropriate passions.

(o) The organic starting point is from the analysis of process as the realisation of events disposed in an interlocked community. The event is the unit of things real. The emergent enduring pattern is the stabilisation of the emergent achievement so as to become a fact which retains its identity throughout the process. It will be noted that endurance is not primarily the property of enduring beyond itself, but of enduring within itself. I mean that endurance is the property of finding its pattern reproduced in the temporal parts of the total event. It is in this sense that a total event carries an enduring pattern. There is an intrinsic value identical for the whole and for its succession of parts. Cognition is the emergence, into some measure of individualised reality, of the general substratum of activity, poising before itself possibility, actuality, and purpose.

It is equally possible to arrive at this organic conception of the world if we start from the fundamental notions of (p. 190) modern physics, instead of, as above from psychology and physiology. The laws which condition this [electromagnetic] 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.

In physics entities are merely considered in respect to their extrinsic reality, that is to say, in respect to their aspects in other things. Further it is only the aspects in other things, as modifying the spatiotemporal specifications of the life histories of those other things, which count.

The fact of seeing red or blue enters into scientific statements. But the red which the observer sees does not in truth enter into science. What is relevant is merely the bare diversity of the observer’s red experiences from all of his other experiences. Accordingly, the intrinsic character of the observer is merely relevant in order to fix the self-identical individuality of the physical, entities.

But even in its extreme abstraction, says Whitehead, science nonetheless presupposes the organic theory of aspects [without knowing it]. It applies this to the idea of empty space (meaning devoid of electrons, or protons, or any other electrical charge).

(p. 191) Such an event [empty space as conceptualized by science] has three roles in physics.

(i) It is an actual scene of an adventure of energy, either as its habitat or as the locus of a particular stream of energy. In this role energy is there, either as located in space during the time considered, or as streaming through space.

(ii) The event is a necessary link in the pattern transmission, by which the character of every event receives some modification from the character of every other.

(iii) The event is a repository of a possibility, as to what would happen to an electric charge, either by way of deformation or of locomotion.

If we modify our assumption by considering an event which includes in itself a portion of the life-history of an electric charge, then the analysis of its three roles still remains; except that the possibility embodied in the third role is now transformed into an actuality. In this replacement of possibility by actuality, we obtain the distinction between empty and occupied events.

Recurring to the empty events, we note the deficiency in them of individuality of intrinsic content. An empty event is something in itself, but it fails to realise a stable individuality of content.

(p. 192) Turning now to the examination of an occupied event, the electron has a determinate individuality. It can be traced throughout its life-history through a variety of events. This individuality of content is the strong point of the materialistic doctrine.

It can, however, be equally well explained on the theory of organism. When we look into the function of electric charge, we note that its role is to mark the origination of a pattern which is transmitted through space and time. It is the key of some particular pattern. The individualisation of the charge arises by a conjunction of two characters, in the (a) first place by the continued identity of its mode of (p. 193) functioning as a key for the determination of a diffusion of pattern; and, in the (b) second place, by the unity and continuity of its life history.

It is obvious that the basing of philosophy upon the presupposition of organism must be traced back to Leibniz [referring here to Bertrand Russells book, The philosophy of Leibniz] His monads are for him the ultimately real entities. But he retained the Cartesian substances with their qualifying passions, as also equally expressing for him the final characterisation of real things. Accordingly, for him there was no concrete reality of internal relations. He had therefore on his hands two distinct points of view. (i) One was that the final real entity is an organising activity, fusing ingredients into a unity, so that this unity is the reality. (ii) The other point of view is that the final real entities are substances supporting qualities.

To combine these two points of view, his monads were therefore windowless; and their passions merely mirrored the universe by the divine arrangement of a pre-stablished harmony.

(p. 194) In the same way as (a) Descartes introduced the tradition of thought which kept subsequent philosophy in some measure of contact with the scientific movement, so (b) Leibniz introduced the alternative tradition that the entities, which are the ultimate actual things, are in some sense procedures of organisation.

Kant reflected the two traditions, one upon the other. Kant was a scientist, but the schools derivative from Kant have had but slight effect on the mentality of the scientific world.

It should be the task of the philosophical schools of this century to bring together the two streams (a + b) into an expression of the world-picture derived from science, and thereby end the divorce of science from the affirmations of our aesthetic and ethical experiences.

(A hand-coloured engraving from the 1780 William Curtis Botanical Magazine, source: Bermuda.com)