Thursday, 8 December 2016

Alfred North Whitehead and the Logician's Nose

In his foreword to Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead, Bruno Latour writes:
“It could be one of those little games journalists play on television talk shows about books: “Who was the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century whose name begins with W?” Most learned people in America would answer “Wittgenstein.” Sorry. The right answer is “Whitehead” – another philosopher whose name begins with W to be sure, but one who is vastly more daring, and also, unfortunately, much less studied.”
Last week, here in Aber InterPol, we had a two-part reading group on A.N. Whitehead’s works. Being partial instigator, I got to choose the readings:
Session 1 – Whitehead’s Problem: The Bifurcation of Nature
The Concept of Nature, chapters I (“Nature and Thought”), II (“Theories of the Bifurcation of Nature”) and VIII (“Summary”). In these lectures (given 1919), Whitehead sets out his “problematique” for the first time, concentrating primarily on the philosophy of physics – something that is taken up and expanded in his later works. His argument here is crucial to many contemporary thinkers, such as Haraway, Barad, Latour and so on. 
Session 2 – Philosophy between Science, Art and Nature
Science and the Modern World chapters IV (“The Eighteenth Century”), V (“The Romantic Reaction”) and XIII (“Requisites for Social Progress”). In these lectures (given 1925), Whitehead fleshes out his problem historically, ranging much more widely than before. The fourth and fifth chapters are particularly interesting because they set out a distinction between natural philosophy and nature poetry, respectively, with Whitehead, as philosopher, taking both equally seriously.
We had been hoping to arrange something like this for a while; however, the occasion was provided by the annual visit of (Visiting Professor) Patrick Thaddeus Jackson from American University – noted Wittgensteinian (and Weberian, for that matter).

Besides myself, we had Milja Kurki, whose work on ‘relational cosmology’ gave us some really important parallels between Whitehead’s century-old works and contemporary physical thinking. Also, representatives of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Eliasian process sociology, and more.

Whitehead’s works are really important for my research at the moment, particularly regarding the place of ‘environment’ within his ‘philosophy of organism,’ and so it was extremely useful to get such a wide range of reactions. Having spent quite some time reading and absorbing Stengers’ reading of (or rather with) Whitehead, I am given to picking up particularly on his pragmatist tendencies. For example, from Science and the Modern World:
“You cannot think without abstractions; accordingly, it is of the utmost importance to be vigilant in critically revising your 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.” (p.59)
Patrick, on the other hand, was most struck by the ‘totalising’ ethic of endeavouring to combine all elements of experience and of scientific fact into a complete conceptual scheme, a theory of everything.

This impression derived particularly from recognition of Whitehead’s intellectual milieu. This being a few years before Gödel's incompleteness theorems were published (1931); a place and time where a ‘theory of everything’ was an objective that hardly needed explanation. Indeed, in our first reading, The Concept of Nature, Whitehead pointedly evades what he calls ‘metaphysics’ but sets out, quite straightforwardly, to construct a concept of nature that will enable the unification of the sciences. And, of course, we can hardly ignore that Whitehead was the mathematician who, with Bertrand Russell, attempted to do nothing less than provide a new foundation for mathematics in their Principia Mathematica (explicitly echoing Isaac Newton in the process).

Reading Whitehead's prose can seem, as Patrick put it, as though it's translated “from the original math.” We can see the ‘totalising’ aspect encapsulated very well on the very first page of Process and Reality (1927), where Whitehead describes “Speculative Philosophy” as:
“the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” (p.3)
Of course, much hinges on what is understood by “our experience” but we can see the point.

My first reaction to this was that Whitehead’s project may have been totalising in this sense but it was not dogmatic. In other words, we should consider precisely what way it was totalising (partial, preliminary, fleeting – i.e. pragmatic). In Stengers’ words (taken by Latour as an epigraph): “Every synthesis begins ‘anew’ and has to be taken up from the start as if for the first time.” In Whitehead's own words: “The many become one, and are increased by one” (1927, p.21).

However, this all got me to thinking further about what I take from Whitehead, creatively rather than historically per se. My interest is not so much in ‘totalisation’ in the sense of insisting that conceptual schemes should necessarily involve consistent abstractions from “every element of our experience.” I am interested in avoiding arbitrary and premature delineations of intellectual boundaries – something for which Whitehead is evidently excellent.

However, I think the more interesting point concerns the profound obligation imposed by the requirement of logical consistency. The interesting aspect of logic, in this regard, is not so much the promise of cohesion into a permanent, solid, unshakeable whole. Rather, it is the unavoidable recognition of the fact that altering one part of the spider's web ripples through every other element. Change your concept of relation and this affects your understanding of life, knowledge, politics, dreams.

If Whitehead’s milieu compels us to interpret him as searching for the totality of the infinite, I am in a sense interested in the totality of the indefinite – stretching far beyond any given instance or expression, constantly rippling back, surprising and forcing reassessment of what could previously taken as totality. In other words, when we refuse to keep process cosmology out of the process of thought. When we give up trying to think the thought that would allow us to stop thinking.

In this sense, you need the logician’s nose to follow the flows. The genius of the tradition of rationalism that Whitehead embodies lies not so much in permanence but in its capacity for dealing with impermanence.

Thinking the thought that would allow us to stop thinking – was this Whitehead's objective? Maybe. But he provides plenty of possibilities for those seeking to kick the habit. Not trying to bring thought to an end but refusing to give up on the means yet developed for dealing with the exigencies of the indefinite.


  1. in terms of Milja and by extension others what could "concepts" be that they organize anything? how and where does this work?

    1. For Whitehead, 'concept' would seem to be a generic term for a formally constructed intellectual abstraction (or perhaps set of abstractions). Pretty much the common or garden meaning. He is more explicit about what he means by abstraction – what is extracted from the flow of nature as an event by an act of perception (which does not need to be human, although the event of bodily experience is his starting point). If 'you cannot think without abstractions' then presumably that goes for concepts, too. Although, thought is not the only means by which abstractions can be produced.

      Regarding how concepts/abstractions organise thought, his starting point is the empirically apparent fact that they do. I'm not sure that he's interested in justifying that fact as such. That would be epistemology, which he isn't much interested in. Perhaps we should then take concept as a specialised form of abstraction, raised to a level of formal explication by the critical faculties of philosophy. Something along those lines would appear to be his point.

      To say that this does not happen (and nothing like this happens, no matter how many ways the preceding could be reworded) would be an odd proposition indeed.

  2. might well strike you as odd, this often happens when folk-psychological errors are challenged, but without any explanation of how abstractions are supposed to bring about such order/ordering this rings quite hollow, see:

    1. I don't think there's anything in Turner's thinking (from what I see summarised here) that contradicts what I've been saying in the above. I certainly don't believe in the idea of "culture" in the sense of superorganism or anything like that. For me, Whitehead's speculative philosophy allows us to get away from that kind of mistake. His whole point is that every abstraction is local and particular but never disconnected.

      Attending to the idiosyncrasies of particular worlds rather than attempting to identify the scaffolds of the one true World is great but you still need a vocabulary that can carry you from one world to the next to the next; a vocabulary that can and perhaps should be modified with each passage. That differs from Whitehead's agenda circa 1920 but that difference is exactly what I was getting at.