Whitehead’s philosophical work is not often viewed with an eye toward its contributions to ethical or political theory. David Hall’s work stands out as one of the better known exceptions to this rule, and Jude Jones’ study of Intensity in Whitehead’s thought has immediate applications in the area of ethics, though it is often viewed from a purely metaphysical angle. I thought it high time to bring a little Whitehead back into this nominally Whiteheadian blog, and current events have offered some examples of how this might be done. Obviously this won’t be anything even remotely approaching those mentioned works’ level of scholarship; indeed, I wish to say up front that anything I say here is simply a product of my own musing, and not to be attributed to anything Hall or Jones said (although, at this point, I can scarcely tell how much is my own thought, and how much I’ve just internalized from others’ work that it is now a part of my own fabric.) No small part of the problem is that, by the time you’ve explained Whitehead, you’ve no space or energy left to apply him to ethics. This is why this post will be some 200+ words longer than I otherwise aim for.
One thing that can be usefully set out right up front: Whitehead’s entire professional career, whether mathematical or philosophical, was dominated by two generic problems that can be usefully described as “the problem of space” and “the problem of the accretion of value.” This issues often overlapped for Whitehead. Thus, in his earliest major professional work, his Treatise on Universal Algebra (a mathematical work on logical forms of space), he devotes several paragraphs to the importance of good symbolism for efficient and unambiguous expression and use of concepts. This is a matter directly relevant to the accretion of value, because good symbolism is a value that accumulates with each gain in efficiency and clarity. In his works on education (widely acknowledged to by sympathetic with Dewey‘s) Whitehead uses ideas of mathematics pedagogy to advance claims about the nature and purpose of a liberal education, education being one of the primary means for the accretion of value. These examples by themselves are almost enough to (loosely) ground the case for a Whiteheadian ethics. But I want to add a few details and then (as mentioned) give a brief application. Details of my discussion can be found HERE. Continue reading