The title of this post came to be long before I had any idea what I was going to write. There is certainly no lack of great and genuinely classic arguments along this line, and I’ve no need or desire to do a rehashed book report on Mill’s On Liberty, or Milton’s Areopagitica. Still, with power canalizing everything it is able into predetermined forms, and the Butthurt Baby in Chief‘s unhinged ravings against the press, against President Obama, even (evidently) thundering at his own staff, saying something about “unpopular” ideas seemed not out of place. The challenge I decided to set before myself was to do so as a Whiteheadian.
My previous post took a number of steps in that direction, including setting up some background on Whitehead’s mature metaphysics. And I’ll not revisit that argument here. Rather, I wish to expand upon it by entertaining some additional Whiteheadian notions, those of the role of error in the growth of meaning, and of the functions of reason in life. Mill talks of the positive value of error in the above referenced book, but his attitude is that such a role is primarily as a whetstone against which reason and truth can sharpen themselves. On the other hand, the trifold functions of reason (Whitehead’s book “singularized” the term to the Function of Reason) open up how the possibilities of meaning in the world creatively expand as we move beyond the shackles of mere existence into the full universe of possibility. That movement – that “creative advance” – involves a kind of “error,” in that what simply “is” must yield to that which only yet “might be.” And that “might be” will, almost invariably, start out by being unpopular. I’ll begin with The Function of Reason, as it is both the easier to explain and the founding (albeit implicit) principle behind Whitehead’s theory of the role of error. Continue reading
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
Publication is almost upon us.
“The Quantum of Explanation advances a bold new theory of how explanation ought to be understood in philosophical and cosmological inquiries. Using a complete interpretation of Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophical and mathematical writings and an interpretive structure that is essentially new, Auxier and Herstein argue that Whitehead has never been properly understood, nor has the depth and breadth of his contribution to the human search for knowledge been assimilated by his successors. This important book effectively applies Whitehead’s philosophy to problems in the interpretation of science, empirical knowledge, and nature. It develops a new account of philosophical naturalism that will contribute to the current naturalism debate in both Analytic and Continental philosophy. Auxier and Herstein also draw attention to some of the most important differences between the process theology tradition and Whitehead’s thought, arguing in favor of a Whiteheadian naturalism that is more or less independent of theological concerns. This book offers a clear and comprehensive introduction to Whitehead’s philosophy and is an essential resource for students and scholars interested in American philosophy, the philosophy of mathematics and physics, and issues associated with naturalism, explanation and radical empiricism.”
This author’s profile can be found HERE.
More information on the book can be found HERE.
Let’s just say I’m a little excited.
A little while ago I rather casually glossed the idea of internal and external forms of relatedness – worse yet, I did so in the concept of discussing Whitehead’s philosophy. This seems like a good time to flesh those ideas out a bit more, as they are interesting in their own right, and will also serve to illuminate another respect in which Whitehead’s process metaphysics differs from so much of the Western canon.
I have been arguing in two previous posts (with a minor political interruption along the way) that what a “thing” “is”, is a matter of how that “thing” relates to the world, and that those relations have a reality in their own right over and above being a merely parasitic way of talking about things and other things. This is a bold claim. Along the way, I’ll be using the terms “relations” and “forms of relatedness” pretty much synonymously. This is nothing to get excited about, simply an effort on my part to mix up my language a bit so that it does not become tedious from repetition. Continue reading
So my last round of musing was on the subject of “emptiness.” Connected to that idea is the concept of “fullness,” of “plenum.” I suspect that one of the primary failures of contemporary metaphysics is misunderstanding which is really which: that is to say, what is really full, and what is really empty. Here again, Whitehead’s process metaphysics offers us important insights. Because how we think of “fullness” – of a thing, a region of space, or whatever – is directly correlated to what we believe to be genuinely real. I argued earlier against the naïve concept of “empty” space, pointing out that not only is that space (according to physics) a broiling froth of micro events and virtual particles, but that it is also densely awash in relational connections to the rest of the universe. Adding to that earlier discussion, one could say that the space itself is a kind of “thing”: it is an event in its own right, it is a process of space relating itself to other spatial events. In this regard, Whitehead rejected the “material aether” that dominated astrophysical thought in the days between James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein (the last quarter of the 19th C. to the first decade or two of the 20th), and argued instead for an “aether of events” as the dominating characteristic of space.
Without assuming – indeed, explicitly denying – any absolute sense of either “emptiness” or “fullness,” what sorts of relative conditions might lead us to characterize one sort of collection as generally more full, and another as comparatively more empty? Well, for that we need a notion of what it is that fills, hence that which is not there when things are empty. My argument is that what “fills” are events and relations. Continue reading