Clearly, if Whitehead’s claims to comprehensiveness are to be taken seriously, then such a fit must be possible. There is, of course, the easy – and, frankly, cheap – method of dismissal, of assigning it all to the “irrational” (that scare quote, again) elements of the human mind. But that is to engage in the genuinely irrational act of ignoring the real – real beyond the fevered imaginings of just and only the human mind. For horror is real; the uncanny is real. One need not turn to such extremities as the Shoahi to find real examples of horror; even the news of an 11-year old child freezing to death in a trailer in Houston is unnecessarily distant and depersonalized. A gray November evening in the back yard, with bent old maple trees glowering over you like disapproving Druids is quite enough to haunt one’s thoughts with a mortality emptied of significance. That is a very real horror too, and not merely a trick of the mind.ii
As for the uncanny, few areas of human experience are more immediately rife with it than the disciplines of mathematics. This choice is scarcely accidental, since Whitehead spent the bulk of his professional life as a working mathematician, one of the best in England of his day. He would have been well aware of G. Hardy and, most especially, Srinivisa Ramanujan.iii Ramanujan, with little more formal education than what we would call high school, was probably the single most brilliant number theorist in the modern history (say, the last 2,000 years) of numbers. How is such a mind even possible, regardless of the level of official schooling?
And then there is the number π and its totally unrelated close cousin e. That method of phrasing is quite deliberate. Because, as stated, the two numbers are completely unrelated and come from two entirely distinct lines of mathematical inquiry. The number π comes from the ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference, whereas e is an expression of the mysteries of logarithms (which has nothing to do with percussion on log drums.) Yet as Euleriv discovered in the early 18th C., the two keep appearing together in all manner of seemingly unrelated contexts.
But the number π is quite enough to give the Wyrd a bad name all by itself. It keeps popping up in places where it has no business being. I’ll offer one example (forgoing all technical details). A very simple physical situation: we scatter a small tin of straight pins on a sheet of lined paper. The size of the pins, and the coarseness of the lining is irrelevant. But when we measure the position of pins relative to lines, that wry bastard π comes jumping right out in our face. Why? Why?
If there is an answer, no one has any idea what it might be. It is, quite frankly, uncanny. And that uncanniness is not a mere artifact of human cognitive limitations, but an objective matter of fact.
Kant approached something of this, in rather more poetically oriented language, in his Critique of Judgment, where he engaged the limits of the aesthetic in what he called the “sublime.” This is arguably not the ideal word in English translation. For your typical reader (for whom English is their primary language) the word “sublime” seems all warm and fuzzy, cozy in an almost Disney-ish sort of way. But for Kant in the CoJ, the “sublime” meant so very much more. It was a thing of awe. And not just awe “inspiring”, but in the bone-chilling and utterly terrifying way as well; the tentacle of Cthulhu hovering for a moment above you before it obliterates not just your existence, but any and all memory of that existence as well is equally sublime in Kant’s scheme of things.
Heidegger spoke of this as well, though I am loathe to credit him with anything (the smug Nazi fuck.) Heidegger used the word I have been employing: he spoke of the uncanny. One can find elements of this in Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer as well. So neither the idea nor the experience is one that is entirely neglected in Western philosophy. But neither is it something that you would naturally see popping out at you in Whitehead’s philosophical work.
Whitehead is, in so many ways, the “Rationalist’s rationalist.” On many levels he was very much the perfect Victorian gentleman. (On the other hand, Bertrand Russell, his student and collaborator on the Principia Mathematica, was in many respects the perfect Edwardian asshole.) In my own published works, Whitehead appears as a beacon shining it’s light upon science (or, more appropriately, on the process of scientific inquiry) and the philosophy of nature. Or (again, more appropriately) “Nature” with a capital “N”. Because Nature, as Whitehead argued, comes to us as an absolute whole that he characterized as “fact.”v Only through various stages of abstraction do we begin to separate out various salient, but real, aspects and characters of Nature that enable us to build our scientific theories of the world. But Nature, in itself and as it is, as primarily present as Fact, is itself uncanny. It is haunted by relational connections of which we will only come to know a few. But we remain, at certain levels, at least, still cognizant of the presence of possibilities we cannot begin to name and may likely never know, beyond the muted declaration that they are there.
Sometimes, those haunting shadows come to us in a spark of light, and out of nowhere we find ourselves confronted by Wigner’s “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the physical world,” a puzzle for which little in the way of a satisfactory answer has ever been proffered.vi How does the mind take in such relational structures and then articulate them as real aspects of the world? There is nothing in our evolution, for example, that would make a Hilbert space a “natural” thing for us to discern. So what other uncanny forms do we discern – in Nature – but which do not permit themselves to be “mathematized”? Why should only mathematics be both uncanny and real? In part 2, I’ll talk more about Whitehead’s relationalism, and how that gets internalized and externalized in our processes of becoming.
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i That is, the Holocaust. Despite my name, I am not Jewish, nor has my family been for at least five generations. Yet for reasons which may themselves be “uncanny” I prefer the Hebraic term “Shoah” to the by now emotionally denuded term “holocaust.”
ii Much – possibly all – of existentialist philosophy is devoted to exploring this condition as the most real state of human “Being.”
iii “We’re still untangling Ramanujan’s mathematics 100 years after he died”: New Scientist, 22 April 2020,
https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24632792-600-were-still-untangling-ramanujans-mathematics-100-years-after-he-died/. Whitehead observed once that most mathematicians are not especially savant when it comes to numerical calculation, often having no real taste for the exercise. The truth is that, in most mathematical inquiries, numbers only serve to index variables.
iv Leonhard Euler 15 April 1707, 18 September 1783. One of the most brilliant mathematicians of all time, did a significant amount of staggeringly original work after he’d become effectively blind.
vi I made my own stab at such an answer, with which I remain deeply unsatisfied, in “Whitehead, Intuition, and Radical Empiricism,” appearing in Ronny Desmet, ed: Intuition in Mathematics and Physics: A Whiteheadian Approach (Toward Ecological Civilization) (Volume 10) (Claremont: Process Century Press, 2016)