Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas

A.N. Whitehead Adventures of Ideas Pelican 1942 (Original Macmillan/CUP 1933)


[Three] books – Science and the Modern World, Process and Reality, Adventures of Ideas – are an endeavour to express a way of understanding the nature of things, and to point out how that way of understanding is illustrated by a survey of the mutations of human experience.

Some unpublished lectures … embodied a preliminary sketch of the topic of this book. They were concerned with the two level of ideas which are required for a successful civilization, namely, particularized ideas of low generality, and philosophic ideas of high generality. The former set are required to reap the fruit of the type of civilization immediately attained; the latter set are required to guide the adventure toward novelty, and to secure the immediate realization of the worth of such ideal aim.


The edition that I have was published during WW2, and recommended for ‘men and women in the services’. It is clearly intended to be more accessible than the other two books in the set. Whereas the other two books seek to show that reductionist accounts of the world must ultimately fail, this book seeks to show that this matters to world affairs and ‘civilization’. It thus sets itself in opposition to a narrow pragmatism whose only philosophic idea of ‘high generality’ is that one does better accepting the status quo and doing the best one can in terms of conventional ‘mainstream’ values. (This was the thinking behind Greenspan‘s economics, for example.)

Part I Sociological

I Introduction

Section I: …. This notion of historians, of history devoid of aesthetic prejudice, of history devoid of any reliance on metaphysical principles and cosmological generalizations, is a figment of imagination. The belief in it can only occur to minds steeped in provinciality – the provinciality of an epoch, of a racer, of a school of learning, of a trend of interest – minds unable to divine their own unspoken limitations.

II: The well-marked transition from one age into another can always be traced to some analogues to Steam and Democracy, or – if you prefer – to some analogues to Barbarians and Christians. …

In every age of well-marked transition there is the pattern of habit of dumb practice and emotion which is passing, and the oncoming of a new complex of habit. Between the two lies a zone of anarchy, either a passing danger or a prolonged welter involving misery of decay and zest of young life.

II The Human Soul

VIII: Human life is driven forward by its dim apprehension of notions too general for its existing language. Such ideas cannot be grasped singly, one by one in isolation. They require that mankind advances in its apprehension of the general nature of things, so as to conceive systems of ideas elucidating each other.

III The Humanitarian Ideal

V: [In England, by the 19th century:] The mere doctrines of freedom, individualism, and competition, had produced a resurgence of something very like industrial slavery at the base of society.

IV Aspects of Freedom

II: … In judging social institutions, their rise, their culmination, and their decay, we have to estimate the types of instinct, of intelligence, and of wisdom which have co-operated with nature to develop the story. The folly of intelligent people, clear-headed and narrow-visioned, has precipitated many catastrophes.

V From Force to Persuasion

IV: … The central factor [in a prosperous civilization] is Commerce; and more than that, it is Commerce developed adventurously.

V: … Mankind is that factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of nature. Plasticity is the introduction of novel law. The doctrine of the Uniformity of Nature is to be ranked with the contrasted doctrine of magic and miracle, as an expression of a partial truth, unguarded and uncoordinated with the immensities of the universe. Our interpretations of experience determine the limits of what we can do with the world.

VI: … The worth of men consists in their liability to persuasion. They can persuade and be persuaded by the disclosure of alternatives, the better and the worse. Civilization is the maintenance of social order, by its own inherent persuasiveness as embodying the nobler alternative. The recourse to force, however unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in the general society or in a remnant of individuals. Thus in a live civilization there is always an element of unrest. For sensitiveness to ideas means curiosity, adventure, change. Civilized order survives on its merits, and is transformed by its power of recognizing its imperfections.

… The enjoyment of power is fatal to the subtleties of life. Ruling classes degenerate by reason of their lazy indulgence in obvious gratifications.

[On] the whole, Commerce is unstable. It brings together groups of men with different modes of life, different technologies and different ways of thought. …

VI Foresight

II: … A system will be the product of intelligence. But when the adequate routine is established, intelligence vanishes, and the system is maintained by a co-ordination of conditioned reflexes. What is then required from humans is receptivity of special training. No one, from president to miner, need understand the system as a whole. There will be no foresight, but there will be success in the maintenance of the routine.
Now it is the beginning of wisdom to understand that social life is founded upon routine. Unless society is permeated, through and through, with routine, civilization vanishes. … Society requires stability, foresight itself presupposes stability, and stability is the product of routine. But there are limits to routine, and it is for the discernment of these limits, and for the provision of the consequent action, that foresight is required.
The two extremes of complete understanding and of complete routine are never realized in human society. But of the two, routine is more fundamental than understanding, that is to say, routine modified by short flashes of short-range intelligence. Indeed, the notion of complete understanding controlling action is an ideal in the clouds, grotesquely at variance with practical life.

III: … The whole of this [sociological] thinking is warped by the vicious assumption that each generation will substantially live amid the conditions governing the lives of its fathers and will transmit those conditions to mould with equal force the lives of its children. We are living in the first period of human history for which this assumption is false. … This assumption subtly pervades the premises of political economy, and has permitted it to confine attention to a simplified edition of human nature. … [In] the past the time-span of important change was considerably longer than that of a human life. Thus mankind was trained to adapt itself to fixed conditions.

IV: … Consider our main conclusions that our traditional doctrines of sociology, of political philosophy, of the practical conduct of large business, and of political economy are largely warped and vitiated by the implicit assumption of a stable unchanging social system. With this assumption it is comparatively safe to base reasoning upon a simplified edition of human nature. For well-known stimuli working under well-known conditions produce well-known reactions. It is safe then to assume that human nature, for the purpose at hand, is adequately described in terms of some of the major reactions to some of the major stimuli. For example, we can all remember our old friend, the economic man.
The beauty of the economic man was that we knew exactly what he was after. … [The] consumer knew what he wanted to consume. … The producer knew how to produce the required articles … . [There] was healthy competition. This is beautifully simple and with proper elaboration is obviously true. It expresses the dominant truth exactly so far as there are stable well-tried conditions. But when we are concerned with a social system which in important ways is changing, this simplified conception of human relations requires severe qualification.

In the present age, the element of novelty which life affords is too prominent to be omitted from our calculations. A deeper knowledge of the varieties of human nature is required to determine the reaction, in its character and its strength, to those elements of novelty which each decade of years introduces into social life. The possibility of this deeper knowledge constitutes the Foresight under discussion.

[For example:] Almost every reason for the growth of cities, concurrently with the growth of civilization, has been profoundly modified.

[We] are faced with a fluid, shifting situation in the immediate future. Rigid maxims, a rule of thumb routine, and cast-iron particular doctrines will spell ruin.

V: [It] is fundamental that there be a power of conforming to routine, of supervising routine, of constructing routine, and of understanding routine both as to its internal structure and as to its external purposes. Such a power is the bedrock of all practical efficiency. But for the production of the requisite Foresight, something more is wanted … a philosophic power of understanding the complex flux of the varieties of human societies … . For example, the time-span of various types of social behaviour is of the essence of their effect on policy. … [The] habit of transforming observation of qualitative changes into quantitative estimates should be a characteristic of business mentality.

[An] an unspecialized aptitude for eliciting generalizations from particulars and for seeing the divergent illustration of generalities in divergent circumstances is required.

VI: … The cycles of trade depression which afflict the world warn us that business relations are infected through and through with the disease of short-sighted motives. … There can be no successful democratic society until general education conveys a philosophic outlook.

… In philosophy the fact, the theory, the alternatives, and the ideal, are weighed together. Its gifts are insight and foresight, and a sense of the worth of life; in short, that sense of importance which nerves all civilized effort. Mankind can flourish in the lower stages of life with merely barbaric flashes of thought. But when civilization culminates, the absence of a co-ordinating philosophy of life, spread throughout the community, spells decadence, boredom, and the slackening of effort.

Mankind is now in one of its rare moods of shifting its outlook. The mere compulsion of tradition has lost its force. It is our business – philosophers, students and practical men – to re-create and re-enact a vision of the world, including those elements and order without which society lapses into riot, and penetrated through and through with unflinching rationality. Such a vision is the knowledge which Plato identified with virtue. Epochs for which, within the limits of their development, this vision has been widespread are the epochs unfading in the memory of mankind.

Part II Cosmological

VII Laws of Nature

III:   Pure speculation, undisciplined by the scholarship of detailed fact or the scholarship of exact logic, is on the whole more useless than pure scholarship, unrelieved by speculation. The proper balance between the two factors in progressive learning depends on the character of the epoch in question and on the capacities of particular individuals.

IV: The notion of Law, that is to say, of some measure of regularity or of persistence or of recurrence, is an essential element in the urge towards technology, methodology, scholarship, and speculation. Apart from a certain smoothness in the nature of things, there can be no knowledge, no useful method, no intelligent purpose. Lacking an element of Law, there remains a mere welter of details with no foothold for comparison with any other such welter, in the past, in the future, or circumambient in the present. But the expression of this notion of Law  with due accuracy, and with due regard to what in fact is presupposed in human purposes, is a matter of extreme difficulty.

[Conscious] attention is not naturally directed to any factor which is a “matter of course” in experience. Attention is riveted upon “news”, and “news” involves some aroma of capriciousness.

[Of early civilization:] in the main practice precedes thought, and thought is mainly concerned with the justification or the modification of a pre-existing situation.

V:  At the present time, there are prevalent four main doctrines concerning the Laws of Nature: the doctrine of Law as immanent, the doctrine of Law as imposed, and the doctrine of Law as observed order of succession, in other words, Law as mere description, and lastly the later doctrine of Law as conventional interpretation. …

By the doctrine of Law as immanent it is meant that the order of nature expresses the characters of the real things which jointly compose the existences to be found in nature. …

There are some consequences to this doctrine. In the first place, it follows that scientists are seeking for explanations and not merely for simplified descriptions of their observations. In the second place the exact conformation of nature to any law is not to be expected. … In so far as we are merely interested in a confused result of many instances, then the law can be said to have a statistical character. It is now the opinion of physicists that most of the laws of physics, as known in the nineteenth century, are of this character.

… the modern evolutionary view of the physical universe should conceive of the laws of nature as evolving concurrently with the things constituting the environment.

[The] conception of the Universe evolving subject to fixed, eternals regulating all behaviour should be abandoned. …. [A] reason can now be produced why we should put some limited trust in induction. For if we assume an environment largely composed of a sort of existences whose natures we partly understand, then we have some knowledge of the laws of nature dominating that environment. But apart from that premise and apart from the doctrine of Immanent Law, we can have no knowledge of the future. We should then acknowledge blank ignorance, and not make pretences about probability. [An immanent law is one that is acting with the things to which it applies, rather than being externally applied. For example, ’emergent properties’ are possible with immanent law.]

[The] doctrine of Immanent Law is untenable unless we can construct a plausible metaphysical doctrine according to which the characters of the relevant things in nature are the outcome of their interconnections, and their interconnections are the outcomes of their characters. This involves some doctrine of Internal Relations.

Finally, the doctrine of Immanence is through and through a rationalistic doctrine. It is explanatory of the possibility of understanding nature.

VI. …

The explanation of the doctrine of Imposition both suggests a certain type of Deism, and conversely it is the out¬ come of such a Deistic belief if already entertained.

VII: Of the three earlier theories, there remains the Positivist doctrine concerning Law, namely, that a Law of Nature is merely an observed persistence of pattern in the observed succession of natural things: Law is then merely Description. There is an attractive simplicity about this doc¬ trine. The two preceding doctrines lead us to the dubieties of metaphysics, such as the doctrine of internal relations or the existence and nature of God. But this third doctrine evades all such difficulties.

… Thus a law of nature says something about things observed and nothing more.
The preoccupation of science is then the search for simple statements which in their joint effect will express everything of interest concerning the observed recurrences. This is the whole tale of science, that and nothing more. It is the great Positivist doctrine, largely developed in the first half of the nineteenth century, and ever since growing in influence.

VIII Cosmologies

IV. … Probability is relative to knowledge. There is no probability as to the future within the doctrine of Positivism.

There is a curious misconception that somehow the mathematical mysteries of Statistics help Positivism to evade its proper limitation to the observed past. But statistics tells you nothing about the future unless you make the assumption of permanence of statistical form. … Mathematics can tell you the consequence of your beliefs.  For example, if your apple is composed of a finite number of atoms, mathematics will tell you that the number is odd or even. But you must not ask mathematics to provide you with the apple, the atoms, and the finiteness of their number. There is no valid inference from mere possibility to matter of fact, or, in other words, from mere mathematics to concrete nature.

X: … In fact the abstract sciences tend to correct the evil effects of the inadequacy of language, and the consequent dangers of a logic which presupposes linguistic adequacy.

IX Science and Philosophy

III: … The history of European thought, even to the present day, has been tainted by a fatal misunderstanding. It may be termed the Dogmatic Fallacy. The error consists in the persuasion that we are capable of producing notions that are adequately defined in terms of the complexity of relationship required for their illustration in the real world. … Except for the simpler notions of arithmetic, even our more familiar ideas, seemingly obvious, are infected with this incurable vagueness. Our right understanding of the methods of intellectual progress depends on keeping in mind this characteristic of our thoughts. The notions employed in every systematic topic require enlightenment from the perspective of every standpoint. … We cannot produce that final adjustment of well-defined generalities which constitute a complete metaphysics. But we can produce a variety of partial systems of limited generality. The concordance of ideas within any one such system shows the scope and virility of the basic notions of the scheme of thought. Also the discordance of system with system, and success of each system as a partial mode of illumination, warn us of the limitations within which our intuitions are hedged. These undiscovered limitations are the topics for philosophic research.

IV: Plato drew the conclusion that the key to understanding of the natural world, and in particular of the physical elements, was the study of mathematics. … Science acquires the cleansing of logical and mathematical lucidity.

V. [Aristotle’s physics] was a generalization of observed fact, and could be confirmed by repeated observation. In its day – and its day lasted for eighteen hundred years – it was extremely useful; and now that it is dead, it is stone-dead, an archaeological curiosity. This is the fate of scientific generalizations, so long as they are considered in relation to their strict scientific purpose. Towards the end of its long life, the doctrine lost its utility and turned into an obstructive agency.

… Probably Aristotle thought that the mathematical knowledge of his day was about as much as was wanted for the purposes of physical science. Any further progress could only minister to an unpractical curiosity about subtle abstractions.
An intense belief that a knowledge of mathematical relations would prove the key to unlock the mysteries of the relatedness within Nature was ever at the back of Plato’s cosmological speculations. … His own speculations as to the course of nature are all founded upon the conjectural; application of some mathematical construction. …

… The science of the future depends for its ready progress upon the antecedent elucidation of hypothetical complexities of connection, as yet unobserved in nature. …

… Aristotelian Logic, by its neglect of mathematical notions, has done almost as much harm as good for the advancement of science. … [It is] the fertile matrix of fallacies. …

[All] science suffers from the vice that it may be combining various propositions which tacitly presuppose inconsistent backgrounds. No science can be more secure than the unconscious metaphysics which tacitly it presupposes.

VI: Thus the Certainties of Science are a delusion. They are hedged around with unexplored limitations. Our handling of scientific doctrines is controlled by the diffused metaphysical concepts of our epoch. Even so, we are continually led into errors of expectation. Also, whenever some new mode of observational experience is obtained the old doctrines crumble into a fog of inaccuracies. …

[The] observational order is invariably interpreted in terms of the concepts supplied by the conceptual order. … Also it is true that novel observations modify the conceptual order. But equally, novel concepts suggest novel possibilities of observational discrimination.

… Observational discrimination is not dictated by the impartial facts. It selects and discards, and what it retains is rearranged in a subjective order of prominence. This order of prominence in an observation is in fact a distortion of facts….

VII: … It must be remembered that just as the relations modify the natures of the relata, so the relata modify the natures of the relation. The relationship is not a universal. It is a concrete fact with the same concreteness as the relata. ,,,

[A] complete existence is not a composition of mathematical formulae, mere formulae. It is a concrete composition of things illustrating formulae. …

VIII: [As Plato did] human thought is now endeavouring to express analogous elements in the composition of nature. It only dimly discerns, it misdescribes, and it wrongly associates. But always there remains the same beacons that lure. Systems, scientific and philosophic, come and go. Each method of limited understanding is at length exhausted. In its prime each system is a triumphant success: in its decay it is an obstructive nuisance.

X The new Reformation

II: … Their true enemy was the doctrine of dogmatic finality which flourished and is flourishing with equal vigour throughout Theology. Science, and Metaphysics. …

Civilization can only be understood by those who are civilized. …

VI: Civilization is constituted out of four elements, Patterns of Behaviour, Patterns of Emotion, Patterns of Belief, and Technologies.

Part III Philosophical

XI Objects and Subjects

VI: Knowledge. All knowledge is conscious discrimination of objects experienced.

[The] doctrines which best repay critical examination are those which for the longest period have remained unquestioned.

XII. [The] tacit identification of perception with sense-perception must be a fatal error barring the advance of off systematic metaphysics.

XIII. … Wherever a vicious dualism appears, it is by reason of mistaking an abstraction for a final concrete fact. [But:] There is a dualism in the contrast between the unity and multiplicity. …

XII Past, Present and Future

 III.: … The future is immanent in the present by reason of the fact that the present bears in its essence the relationships which it will have to the future.

IV: … The understanding of the Universe requires that we conceive in their proper relations to each other the various roles, of efficient causation, of teleological self-creation, and of contemporary independence. This adequate conception  requires also understanding of perspective elimination, and of types of order dominating vast epochs, and of minor endurances with their own additional modes of order diversifying each larger epoch within which they find themselves.

VI. The causal independence of contemporary occasions is the ground for the freedom within the Universe. … The antecedent environment is not wholly efficacious in determining the initial phase of the occasion which springs from it. … [In] any two occasions of the Universe there are elements in either one which are irrelevant to the constitution of the other. The forgetfulness of this doctrine leads to an over-moralization in the view of the nature of things. Fortunately there are a great many things which do not much matter, and we can have them how we will. The opposite point of view has been the nursery of fanaticism, and has tinged history with ferocity.

VIII: When we examine the structure of the epoch of the Universe in which we find ourselves, thus structure exhibits successive layers of types of order, each layer introducing some additional type of order within some limited region which shares in the more general type of order of some larger environment. … The percipient may be an occasion within the region, and may yet grasp the region as one, including the recipient as a member of it.
A region, analysed in the first way, is thereby conceived of as subject to certain Laws of Nature, which laws are its dominant set of ordering relations. In the second mode of consideration, synthesis replaces analysis. The region in question assume s the guise of an enduring unity, of which the essence is a certain complex character [i.e., the set of Laws of Nature].

XIII The Grouping of Occasions

II: [The] principle that the interrelations of the present are derived from a reference to the past is fundamental. It gives the reason why the contemporary world is experienced as a display of lifeless substances passively illustrating imposed characters.

III: The members of [a] society are alike because, by reason of their common character, they impose on other members of the society the conditions which lead to that likeness.

[A] society must exhibit the peculiar quality of endurance. The real things that endure are all societies. [A] society, as a complete existence and as retaining the same metaphysical status enjoys a history expressing its changing reactions to changing circumstances.

[The] realized nexus which underlies the society is always adding to itself, with the creative advance into the future.

V: The Universe achieves its values by reason of its co-ordination into societies of societies, and into societies of societies of societies.

[The] notion of a defining characteristic must be construed to include the notion of the co-ordination of societies. Thus there are societies at different levels.

VI: … The essence of life is the teleological introduction of novelty, with some conformation of objectives. Thus novelty of circumstance is met with novelty of functioning adapted to steadiness of purpose.

XIV Appearance and Reality

III: There can be no general metaphysical principles which determine how in any occasion appearance differs from the reality out of which it originates. The divergencies between reality and appearance depend on the type of social order dominating the environment of the occasion in question.

IV When the higher functioning of mentality are socially stabilized in an organism, appearance merges into reality.

IX: [Sense-perception], as conceived in the isolation of its ideal purity, never enters into human experience. It is always accompanied by so-called “interpretation”. This “interpretation” does not seem to be necessarily the product of any elaborate train of intellectual cognition. We find ourselves “accepting” a world of substantial objects, directly presented for our experience. Our habits, our states of mind, our modes of behaviour, all presuppose this “interpretation”.

It requires considerable ability to make the disastrous abstraction of our bare sense-perceptions from the massive insistency of our total experiences. Of course, whatever we can do in the way of abstraction is for some purpose useful – provided that we know what we are about.

XV Philosophic Method

A great deal of confused philosophical thought has its origin in obliviousness to the fact that the relevance of evidence is dictated by theory. … [In] any science which has failed to produce any theory with a sufficient scope of application, progress is necessarily very slow. It is impossible to know what to look for, and how to connect the sporadic observations. …

[The] criticism of a theory does not start from the question, True or False? It consists in noting the scope of its useful application and its failure beyond that scope.

III: Speculative philosophy can be defined as the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.

Sometimes it is necessary for a science to entertain concurrently two – or more – working hypotheses, each with its own success and failure. Such hypotheses are contradictory as stated; and science awaits their conciliation by the production of a working hypothesis with a wider sweep. When a new working hypothesis is proposed, it must be criticised from its own point of view. …
Philosophy has been afflicted by the dogmatic fallacy, which is the belief that the principles of its working hypotheses are clear, obvious and irreformable. …

VIII:    Language is incomplete and fragmentary, and merely registers a stage in the average advance beyond ape-mentality. But all men enjoy flashes of insight beyond meanings already stabilized in etymology and grammar. Hence the role of literature, the role of special science … .

XIV: [The] business of Logic is not the analysis of generalities but their mingling.

XVI: [Events] are “always becoming and never really are”. …

… More important than Occam’s doctrine of parsimony – if it not be another aspect of the same – is this doctrine that the scope of a metaphysical principle should not be limited otherwise than by the necessity of its meaning.

Part IV Civilization

XVI. Truth

II. Truth is a qualification which applies to appearance alone. Reality is just itself, and it is nonsense to ask whether it be true or false. Truth is the conformation of Appearance to Reality. This conformation may be more or less, also direct or indirect. Thus truth is a generic quality with a variety of degrees and modes. …

III. The notion of Truth can be generalized, so as to avoid any explicit reference to Appearance. Two objects may be such that (1) neither may be a component of the other, and (2) their composite natures may include a common factor, although in the full sense of the term their “essences” are  different. The two objects can then be said to have a truth-relation to each other. The examination of one can disclose some factor belonging to the essence of the other. In other words, an abstraction can be made and some elements of the complete pattern can be omitted. The partial pattern thus obtained will be said to be abstracted from the original. …

… It is an erroneous moral platitude, that it is necessarily good to know the truth. The minor truth may beget the major evil. And this major evil may take the form of a major error. Henri Poincaré points out that that instruments of precision, used unseasonably, may hinder the advancement of science.

IV: [In] all analysis there is one supreme factor which is apt to be omitted, namely the mode of togetherness. [A] nexus and a proposition belong to different categories of being. Their identification is mere nonsense. It is nonsense of the same sort as the fashionable identification of a physical fact with formulae of pure mathematics.

V: For animals … sense-perception is the culmination of Appearance. … The note of hypothesis, the note of mere suggested possibility is eliminated.

XVII. Beauty

Beauty is the mutual adaptation of the several factors of an occasion of experience….

“Adaptation” implies an end. [The] minor form of beauty [is] the absence of a painful clash, the absence of vulgarity.  [The] major form of beauty … presupposes the [minor], and adds to it the condition that the conjunction in one synthesis of the various prehensions introduces new contrasts of objective content with objective control. These contrasts introduce new conformal intensities of feeling natural to each of them, and by so doing raise  the intensities of the conformal feeling in the primitive component feelings. Thus the parts contribute to the massive feeling of the whole, and the whole contributes to the intensity of feeling of the parts.

V: [On the decline of Greek civilization:] Perfection was attained, and with the attainment inspiration withered. With repetition in successive generations, freshness gradually vanished. Learning and learned taste replaced the ardour of adventure. … Literature without depth: Science elaborating details by deductions from unquestioned premises: Delicacies of feeling without robustness of adventure.

… [Even] perfection will not bear the tedium of infinite repetition. … Adventure is essential, namely the search for new perfections.

VII.    The intermingling of Beauty and Evil arises from the conjoint operation of three metaphysical principles: (1) That all actualization is finite; (2) That finitude involves the exclusion of alternative possibility; (3) That mental functioning introduces into realization subjective forms conformal to relevant alternatives excluded from the completeness of physical realization.

… The new occasion, even apart from its own spontaneous mentality, is thus confronted by basic dis-harmony in the actual world from which it springs. This is fortunate. For otherwise actuality would consist in a cycle of repetition, realizing only a finite group of possibilities. This was the narrow, stuffy doctrine of some ancient thinkers.

[Under “anaesthesia” one ignores the disharmony. One can also learn to appreciate the discordance. Next:] a readjustment of the relative intensities of incompatible feelings can in some cases reduce them to compatibilities. [More generally, one can introduce a novel system of prehensions which radically] alters the distribution of intensities throughout the two given systems, and to change the importance of both in the final intensive experience of the occasion. …

… Appearance combines massive with intensity by unifying the diversities of objects. It simplifies the objects and precipitates upon the simplification the qualitative contents of the given world. It saves intensities and massiveness at the cost of eliciting vivid experiences of affective tones, good and bad. …

VIII.   For the understanding of Harmony and Discord it is essential to remember that strength of experience, in massiveness and in intensity, depends upon the substratum of detail being composed of significant individuals. Appearance has been constituted fortunately when it has simplified the welter of occasions, individually insignificant, into a few significant individual things. It has “interpreted” the world in terms of factors received from the world – so that each factor of interpretation can be substantiated by direct intuition – only if consciousness can analyse so far. Such is fortunate experience. It derives its strength from the concurrence of significant individual objects, and its own existence to the significance of those objects. This is the enjoyment of Harmony, and a factor in this enjoyment is the intuition that the future, where its objective immortality lies, is increasing grounds for harmony. Destruction is absent.

… IN Discord there is always frustration. But even Discord may be preferable to a feeling of slow relapse into a general anaesthesia, or into tameness which is its prelude. Perfection at a low level ranks below Imperfection with higher aim.
A mere qualitative Harmony within an experience comparatively barren of objects of high significance is a debased type of Harmony, tame, vague, deficient in outline and intention. It is one property of a beautiful system of objects that, as entertained in a succession of occasions adapted for its enjoyment, it quickly builds up a system of apparent objects with vigorous characters. … Enduring Individuality in the details is the backbone of strong experience.
Art at its highest exemplifies the metaphysical doctrine of the interweaving of absoluteness upon relativity. … [The] foundation of Reality upon which Appearance rests can never be neglected in the evaluation of Appearance.

 XVIII Truth and Beauty

 [Any] system of things which in any wide sense is beautiful is to that extent justified in its existence. It may however fail in another sense, by inhibiting more Beauty than it creates. Thus the system, though in a sense beautiful, is on the whole evil in that environment. …

… The Discord in the Universe arises from the fact that modes of Beauty are various, and not of necessity compatible. And yet some admixture of discord is a necessary factor in the transition from mode to mode. …

When Appearance has to Reality, in some important direct sense, a truth-relation, there is a security about the Beauty attained, that is to say, a pledge for the future.

IV: [Stagnation] is the deadly foe of morality. …

V: … What leaps into conscious attention is a mass of presuppositions about Reality rather than intuitions of reality itself. …

VI: [Civilization] is nothing other than the unremitting aim at the major perfections of harmony.

XIX Adventure

II:    The foundation of all understanding of sociological theory – that is to say, of all understanding of human life – is that no static maintenance of perfection is possible. This axiom is rooted in the nature of things. Advance or Decadence are the only choices offered to mankind. …

The doctrine is founded upon three metaphysical principles. One principle is that the very essence of real actuality – that is, of the completely real – is process. Thus each actual thing is only to be understood in terms of its becoming and perishing.

The taint of Aristotelian Logic has thrown the whole emphasis of metaphysical thought upon substantives and adjectives, to the neglect of prepositions and adjectives. This Aristotelian doctrine is in this book summarily denied. The process itself is the actuality, and requires no antecedent static cabinet.

III: [In] every civilization at its culmination we should find a large measure of realization of a certain type of perfection. This type will be complex and will admit of variations of detail, this way or that. The culmination can maintain itself at its height so long as fresh experimentation within the type is possible. But when these minor variations are exhausted, one of two things must happen. Perhaps the society in question lacks imaginative force. Staleness then sets in. Convention dominates. A learned orthodoxy suppresses adventure.

IV: [Freedom], in any one of its many senses, is the claim for vigorous self-assertion.

[The] civilization of a society requires the virtues of Truth, Beauty, Adventure and Art.

XX. Peace

II: … I choose the term “Peace” for that Harmony of Harmonies which calms destructive turbulence and completes civilization. [A] society is to be termed civilized whose members participate in the five qualities – Truth, Beauty, Adventure, Art, Peace.

III: The Peace that is here meant is not the negative concept of anaesthesia. … It is a broadening of feeling due to the emergence of some deep metaphysical insight, unverbalized and yet momentous in its co-ordination of value. It first effect is the removal of the stress of acquisitive feeling arising from the soul’s preoccupation with itself. … There is thus involved a grasp of infinitude, an appeal beyond boundaries. Its emotional effect is the subsidence of turbulence which inhibits. More accurately, it preserves the springs of energy, and at the same time masters them for the avoidance of paralysing distractions. …

V: [The] success of language in conveying information is vastly over-rated, especially in learned circles. Not only is language highly elliptical, but also nothing can supply the defects of first-hand experience of types cognate to the things explicitly mentioned.

VI: The vigour of civilized societies is preserved by the widespread sense that high aims are worthwhile. …

VII: Moral codes have suffered from the exaggerated claims made for them. …

[The] notion that there are certain regulative notions, sufficiently precise to prescribe details of conduct, for all reasonable beings on earth, in every planet, and in every star-system, is at once to be put aside.

VIII: The moral code is the behaviour-patterns which in the environment for which it is designed will promote the evolution of that environment towards its proper perfection



Whitehead –  along with many others of his time – noted that the then new physics of relativity and quantum mechanics was inconsistent with  classical thinking in terms of objects, attributes and relationships. Here he goes further in claiming that the distortions of classical object-based language lie behind many falsehoods and ills, such as the idea that a belief in free will is not rational, or that those who disagree with you must be bad.

Whitehead had earlier developed his ‘process philosophy’. Here he regards processes as paramount and apparent objects, attributes and relationships as derivative. For example, an object is the locus of interacting processes. This is now a mainstream view of atoms, but the interest of the book is in its social implications. Even if one doubts or disbelieves that social processes are anything other than classically derivative from interacting individuals Whitehead’s critique of the object-based view still stands, since he has demonstrated a logical alternative explanation for the appearances, and historically the key lesson from Whitehead’s work was not to rely too strongly on any beliefs about the world that depended on the object-based representation, whether for atoms or international relations.

This book was recommended reading during WWII, and one can readily see its implications and the extent to which its findings infused and informed British policy and strategy then and subsequently. My view is that an appreciation of his findings (especially those most pithily expressed) would still be important in many areas (such as those touched on in my blog). Recognizing the uncertainties that ought to surround any object-based reasoning in a world that is not necessarily object-based seems to be important. Recognizing the importance of processes,  and even ‘privileging’ them over objects, can also be important. But I am less clear that the specific of his process view is important. Mostly one can suppose that the apparent objects were all possibly composite with scope for re-formation. This introduces appropriate uncertainty and seems to me to lead to many of the same findings. It also seems much more practical than trying to communicate ones ideas more clearly, logically and precisely.


For sufficiently isolated systems, locally and in the short-run, behaviours typically seem to respect laws, either classical or probabilistic. More generally laws may constrain, but leave scope for  innovation. In the process view this may be genuine innovation and even a trace of free will. If that is too radical, we could simply say that there is irreducible uncertainty, and that from time to time we will have to attend to new ‘things’ or new levels of detail. Either way, new things keep appearing on our map: the difference is whether we regard them all as being there all along, but un-noticed, or if we suppose that they get created as things develop.

Whitehead’s view is that if you try to stabilise appearances you constrain processes, creating vulnerabilities. This is a kind of uncertainty principle. Stabilising appearance in the short-run destabilizes behaviours in the long-run. This seems to me an important insight.  In particular, one always needs to be aware of the long-run consequences of short-term interventions. Beware of contrary dogmas.

Where one has conflict, Whitehead suppose that you need to not just try to defend or return to some status quo ante, but to develop some mutually acceptable ‘third way’ that then creates an acceptable context for the conflicting parties without forcing them to a common position.  This view  informed the development of the United Nations and the current system of International Relations. But somehow the ‘moral’ aspect seems to have got lost. The world order that the main powers seem to be coercing everyone into seems pretty much like stagnation.

Dave Marsay

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