Whitehead set out to make sense of things. After witnessing all of his attempts to point out how Einstein’s general theory of relativity failed to make the sense it claimed to make (and still fails to do so, but the model centrists won’t permit empirical evidence to get in the way of their clever mathematics), he arguably decided that he needed to step back from epistemology and philosophy of science, to present a more logically primary argument, in the metaphysical form of his “philosophy of organism.” Whitehead centered his argument on what I and Randy Auxier named “the quantum of explanation,” a logical (rather than ontological) center, around which Whitehead constructed his subtle and complex system of making sense. It has been suggested that Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process and Reality, is one of the five most difficulty works in the Western philosophical canon. I’m not inclined to argue with such a sentiment, since the most that could be credibly argued is that it might be knocked back to sixth place. For my part, I’m not sure what work could manage that feat.
One of the points that Randy and I tried to emphasize was that the process of “making sense” was itself a rather complex process, in which the most active word in the proceeding is process: this is not an object you hold, but an activity you engage in. So despite my habitual focus upon contemporary science &/or concerns, this is actually as classic an issue as you can find in the Western philosophical canon. (And I just don’t have the expertise to speak with even casual ignorance about the Eastern canon, a source of inestimable insight and subtlety. I am, however, inclined – ignorant as I am – to suspect that what I have to say here can find its analogs in that tradition.)
That said, it is worth repeating (in more modern terms) something Aristotle was inclined to emphasize, if not center his entire philosophical approach around: there is more than one way to make sense of the world. The way this is typically translated (by Aristotle’s translators) is, “the word ‘is’ is said in many ways.” By this expression, Aristotle was pointing out that there are any qualities and characteristics of which any particular thing can truly be said that it “is” the case. Wittgenstein gave an example in his Blue and Brown Notebooks that highlights this many senses of “is” issue: “I point at a pencil and say, ‘this is tove!’ What have I said?” Well, the pencil is yellow, it is made of wood, it is hexagonal in the cross-section, it is a writing instrument, it is a pencil. Which version “is” the one that makes sense of “tove”? (Wittgenstein’s point was that it takes more than a simple act OF pointing to make sense of a word, but his example serves here as well.)
But there’s a deeper notion of making sense in Aristotle, and which also appears in Whitehead, that I want to spend time on, and that is the notion of “cause.” While I am not an Aristotle scholar (I do not read or speak ancient Greek, for instance, which any Aristotle scholar must be able to do) I am nevertheless legitimately unhappy with the use of the word “cause” in translating Aristotelian concepts, as well as using the word “physics” for the Aristotelian text titled Φυσικὴ ἀκρόασις (“Phusike akroasis”, or “lectures on nature”). The Greek word φύσις is the source of our modern term “physics,” but the meanings of the two words are radically different. In Greek, “φύσις” means “nature,” but “nature” for the Greeks meant “that which changes.” So when studying “that which changes,” Aristotle identified four principle modes of making sense, which came to be translated as “causes.” But in the intervening centuries since the scientific revolution, words like “cause” and “physics” have taken on very different meanings than they had when Aristotle was speculating upon them. The result is that we now read back upon Aristotle’s “Physics” notions of “cause” which lead us to conclude that Aristotle was “really” doing really bad science. He was, of course, doing nothing of the kind.
In his lectures on Φυσικὴ, Aristotle was asking how to make sense of that part of the world that was subject to change, and he identified four “causes,” which would be better translated as “reasons for,” such changes. There are lots of reasons for things that cannot be reduced to contemporary, scientific physics. (Some people would disagree with this statement, but they are basing their disagreement upon their religious-like faith, and intransigent commitment, to an indefensible dogma for which they can offer no actual evidence, only the circular argument of their dogma.) For one thing, (contemporary) physics cannot account for the logical/semantic structures that fall under the heading of intentionality (represented in terms such as “believes that,” “means that,” “intends that,” etc.) since that intentionality must already be present and in play before any scientific, physical claim about the world can ever be made or interpreted (the latter being examples of intentionality.) So making sense of things cannot be reduced to physical science, since physical science cannot account for its own attempts to make sense of things.
(A point that merits emphasis on this last part: the conclusion is based upon the logic and semantics of intentionality and intentional terms; no appeal is made to any trans-empirical “things” or magical, non-natural “stuff.” As physical science must presuppose such terms and logical forms before it can even get started, it can only pretend to make sense of them through acts of overtly circular reasoning.)
Aristotle identified four primary “reasons for” (“RF”): The purpose a thing served (the “final” RF); the logical/semantic/meaning intersection with the world (the “formal” RF); the “push-me/pull-you” effectiveness of action (the “efficient” RF, this is closest to our physical, scientific sense of “cause”); and the inherent potency of the thing itself, what we now translate from Aristotle as “matter,” (hence “material” RF.) I would argue that by dropping the prejudiced and weighted word “cause” in favor of “reason for,” then Aristotle’s RF’s can make a great deal more sense to our contemporary minds.
For his part, Whitehead’s “RF’s” are more numerous and complex than Aristotle’s, but the understanding of nature in Whitehead’s day was far more elaborately developed than what Aristotle could even dream of. So Whitehead’s “categoreal scheme” is built around four primary notions, which in turn are informed by eight categories of existence, twenty-seven categories of explanation, and nine “categoreal obligations.” The list here given hopefully suffices to justify my demurring from pursuing the details of Whitehead’s system in a mere blog post. But one should not be overly intimidated by the size of this list of RF’s. One of Whitehead’s habits as a mathematician was his inclination to a greater number of rules for the sake of immediate clarity, rather than a smaller list aiming for purer, logical parsimony.
And for all of his praise of Plato (Whitehead famously quipped that all of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato), Whitehead has always (to my way of thinking) been more of a kindred spirit with Aristotle. Despite Whitehead’s mathematical career focusing on what might be called “the problem of space” (which, on first blush, would seem to put him in Plato’s corner, given the latter’s concern with geometry), Whitehead’s approach was always that of an algebraist, and specifically what would later come to be called (following Tarski) “algebraic logic.” Additionally, Whitehead himself referred to his speculative metaphysics as “the philosophy of organism” (my emphasis). These two factors are much more characteristic of Aristotle than Plato. Whitehead shares with Aristotle a more “direct” approach to “making sense” than Plato’s dialogical method, the latter attempting to capture the give and take of conversation in written text. (In fairness, though, the texts we have of Aristotle are essentially lecture notes. Cicero is reported to have spoken very highly of Aristotle’s dialogs, of which we have not even the littlest scrap.)
That being said, it is worth noting that both Aristotle and Plato retain a place in our lives, as two thinkers who did much to observe with care the human condition. So while Whitehead might bring us much closer to making sense of contemporary science, the Greeks and their “reasons for” still have much to teach us about the intelligibility of human experience. And that, I find, is “cause” for cheer.