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I have wanted to read Alfred North Whitehead's "Process and Reality" since my undergraduate days as a philosophy major but have only done so recently, several years into retirement. It would have been an extraordinarily difficult book then and remains so now, with many years of living and reading in between. Still, there is some benefit to age. Whitehead (1861 -- 1947) was co-author with his student, Bertrand Russell of the famous work on logic, "Principia Mathematica" (1910 -- 1913), but he broadened his philosophical interests slowly. He became Professor of Philosophy at Harvard in 1924 at age 63 and published "Process and Reality: an Essay in Cosmology" in 1929 at the age of 68. It is a daunting work, both in the writing and in the reading.
Books find their readers, and it is unlikely that anyone without a strong interest in philosophical questions will pick up or stay with "Process and Reality". The book is slow, difficult, and convoluted, probably deliberately so, both in what it says and in the manner of presentation. The book includes passages of clear, eloquent writing. On the whole, it gives a feeling of near-impenetrability in its detail, organization, and not least, in its invention of new words. Still William James, one of the philosophical heroes of the book, said that the heart of any philosophy could be summarized on the back of a postage stamp. For Whitehead, the back of the stamp might read "Reject substance, fact-based philosophy in favor of a philosophy of breadth, continued process and change".
I am unable to summarize this book but will offer instead some of what I took from it. The basis, as stated above, is the rejection of philosophical thinking in terms of substance.
1. Whitehead practices systematic metaphysics and philosophy of the broadest generality in contrast to the focus on particular issues, often scientifically based, that prevailed during the 20th Century.
2 Whitehead stresses that philosophy is experientially based and descriptive in a broad sense. More importantly, he emphasizes the universality of feeling over reason. The book tries to show the breadth of feeling in experience without resorting to the anti-intellectualism of some of his philosophical contemporaries and successors.
3. Whitehead is more interested in how things become and change rather than in static concepts of things and of being.
4. Whitehead tries to show the interconnectedness as opposed to separateness between a. things, regardless of how disparate they might appear at first blush, b. different times and eras, and c. mind and body.
5. Whitehead calls his thinking the "philosophy of organism". The philosophy has living things as a loose model rather than static, unfeeling objects. His understanding of change in organisms makes use of what philosophers have called both efficient and final causes.
6. Whitehead emphasizes the importance of fallibility, chance, novelty, and error in trying to work to increase one's understanding.
7. Whitehead's philosophy has an inherently theistic component which does not appear to fit with traditional understandings of religion. The discussion of God that appears most fully in the final section of "Process and Reality" has inspired a theological school known as "Process Theology".
In the important "Preface" to this lengthy book, Whitehead offers his own nine-point summary of the prevalent habits of philosophical thought his work tries to displace. (p. xiii) He also teaches the "doctrine that the creative advance of the world is the becoming, the perishing, and the objective immortalities of those things which jointly constitute stubborn fact." In the opening chapter of the book, titled "Speculative Philosophy", Whitehead writes in explaining the nature both of speculative thought and of his own thinking:
"After the initial basis of a rational life, with a civilized language, has been laid, all productive thought has proceeded either by the poetic insight of artists, or by the imaginative elaboration of schemes of thought capable of utilization as logical premises. In some measure or other, progress is always a transcendence of what is obvious."
At the outset of Part II of the book, called "Discussions and Applications", Whitehead offers his famous dictum that "the safest generalization of the European philosophical tradition is that it constitutes a series of footnotes to Plato." He proceeds to characterize his own thought as "Platonic" in a broad sense and then goes on to elaborate: "If we had to render Plato's general point of view with the least changes made necessary by the intervening two thousand years of human experience in social organization, in aesthetic attainments, in science, and in religion, we should have to set about the construction of a philosophy of organism. In such a philosophy the actualities constituting the process of the world are conceived as exemplifying the ingression (or 'participation') of other things which constitute the potentialities of definiteness for any actual existence."
The book is arranged in five large parts which begin with the nature of speculative philosophy and proceeds with a lengthy treatment of the history of philosophy and science with an emphasis on Locke and Hume. The third and fourth parts develop Whitehead's understanding of feelings and of extensions in great, difficult detail, while the final part of the book, "Final Interpretation" explores an understanding of God that has been present uneasily in everything in the book that proceeds. In this book, one part does not build on another. Rather the book has a concentric, spiral form in which the same philosophical thinking is stated and expounded from different points of entry. Occasional summaries and relatively clear expressions punctuate throughout the obscurity of the writing.
"Process and Reality" requires a great deal of patience and a willingness to spend time with material that is nothing if not frustrating. For all the fog of the book, a philosophical approach comes through which is worth knowing and thinking about. It is a book I might well have read when younger, with the broad ambitions of youth. It remains, I think, a major work of 20th Century philosophy worthy to be considered and compared with more widely-read but difficult books such as Heidegger's "Being and Time" and Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations".
Feb 25, 2010
Not the corrected edition
Be sure to get the "corrected" edition as the edition I have has numerous editing errors.
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