The Procession of the Universe

By Gabriel Blanchard

Whitehead said Western philosophy can be described as footnotes to Plato; whether Whitehead saw the weight of the footnote he himself added is another question.

In this name, we find perhaps the most difficult author on our list—which is saying something when one has figures like Immanuel Kant hanging about! Then again, though remembered for his contributions to philosophy, Whitehead was trained as a mathematician and logician, so perhaps we should be grateful for what clarity we got out of him.

Speaking of mathematics and logic, one of his first and most admired works was a collaboration with Bertrand Russell, a former pupil of his at the University of Cambridge. This was their Principia Mathematica,* which they published in 1911.  Despite the fact that two of its three stated aims involved the use of symbolic logic—i.e., the sort of stuff that goes ⊢α, β ε 1 . : α ∩ β = Λ . . α ∪ β ε 2 (as if everybody didn’t already know that)—the Principia was fairly well-received. It soon formed the background against which Kurt Gödel constructed his incompleteness theorems, important points of discussion for all later epistemology. The reasoning behind them is well beyond the present author’s ken, but the gist as reported by people with higher kens goes like this. For any system of thought based on axioms (Euclid‘s On Geometry being a good example), from within that system, it is not possible to: (1) invent an algorithm that will identify all the system’s foundational axioms; and (2) demonstrate that the system corresponds to reality, though one can demonstrate its internal consistency. The book was written principally in the service of number theory, but also to address certain problems and paradoxes in set theory Russell had encountered.

The vitality of thought is an adventure. Ideas won't keep. Something must be done about them.

However, shortly after the First World War, Whitehead began to take an interest in philosophy, particularly metaphysics. Despite the fact that he had received no formal training in the subject beyond some light study as an undergraduate at Cambridge, he rapidly became one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century. He showed a particular interest in the philosophy of science, and it was in relation to the sciences—and to the metaphysical assumptions that, he argued, scientists often proposed under the name “science”—that he set forth some of his most difficult and shocking claims. We are in no position to exhaust his philosophy; indeed, we are probably in little position to understand it! Like a handful of others on the Author Bank, Whitehead is as infamously hard to follow as he is famously profound. (Shailer Mathews, a theologian and historian, once remarked of one of Whitehead’s books that “It is infuriating, and I must say embarrassing as well, to read page after page of relatively familiar words without understanding a single sentence.”) But let us consider a very few salient points that he made often enough for us to be fairly confident we have grasped them.

First, Whitehead believed that most of the Western tradition of ontology had a critical flaw. Most philosophers, from ancient Greece right down to our own day, have considered change an essentially secondary thing: a handful, like Parmenides, have actually maintained that change is illusory, suggesting a faint resemblance to Buddhist metaphysics; most have followed the example of Aristotle, who considered change a real thing that happens to substances (individual existent things), but for this reason consider change a dependent thing and substance as the primary. Whitehead rejected both positions, considering change or becoming to be primary things, specifically in the form of creativity. He thus echoes Heraclitus, whose saying “No one can step in the same river twice” remains famous twenty-five centuries later. It is for this reason that Whitehead’s school of metaphysics is known as process philosophy.

A corollary of this outlook is that, for Whitehead, individual substances do not really exist in the way we normally think. Consider the ship in which Theseus sailed to defeat the Minotaur. Physical processes (weathering, for example) were constantly affecting it, and even if they had not been, it existed in a practical infinity of exact physical locations and successive moments of time on the voyage from Athens to Crete. Because the process rather than the ship is the primary reality, each one of these space-time individualities is, in some sense, its own; the substance that we call “the ship of Theseus” is a relationship among all those individualities. His view is reminiscent of a remark of St. Thomas in the Summa Theologiæ, that “in God, the relations [between the Persons of the Trinity] themselves are the Persons”†; it also suggests the intensely difficult opening of another intensely difficult book, The Sickness Unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard: “The self is a relation that relates to itself, or is precisely that in the relation which the relation relates to itself” (and the good Dane goes on like this for some time).

Another characteristic, though not universal, trait of Western philosophy is mind-body dualism. The basic idea here is that the body and the mind are different kinds of thing, as are physical processes from mental or conceptual ones. Materialists sometimes deny the reality of the mind and of mental processes, asserting that all ostensibly mental things are really physical things in disguise.‡ Whitehead went almost in the opposite direction. Without maintaining that matter was an illusion, he did consider both matter and mind to be abstractions. What really exist are occasions of experience, which “have” both material and mental “aspects,” but only in the sense that a musical note “has” both pitch and timbre—the thing that actually exists is the musical note, while pitch and timbre are how we describe our experience of the note in different ways, not separate ingredients that need to be assembled into a single thing.

Beyond this point, Whitehead’s thought outstrips the present author’s brain! It is tempting to quote one of Milton’s finest lines in describing him: “Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear.”

*This should not be confused with Sir Isaac Newton‘s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (a work on the laws of physics).
†Emphasis added. This comes from Part I, Q. xlii, Art. 3; the translation, with the Latin original in full, can be found at this extremely helpful site set up by the Fathers of the English Dominican province.
‡Given their premises, it is admittedly hard to see why they bother. However, some materialists (the ancient Stoics are an example) do admit the reality of mind; they simply maintain that, rather than constituting a different type of being from matter, both mind and matter are made of the same “stuff.”


Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large.

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Published on 17th July, 2023. Page image of the Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge (source), Whitehead’s alma mater and for nearly a quarter-century his employer.

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