Whitehead notes: The Concept of Nature, unfinished

“For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyse how these various elements of nature are connected.” (29)

So far I have read the little book The Concept of Nature (1920) and the first 90 pages or so of his master work, Process and Reality (Corrected Edition) (1978). After reading Deleuze’s The Fold and picking up the contagion of Steve Shaviro’s enthusiasm for Whitehead evident in his blog posts I decided a while ago that I was going to have to read Whitehead’s work. Deleuze references three of Whitehead’s books in The Fold so I bought them to read over the ‘break’ (break from what, exactly? lol). Reading Whitehead’s work after reading lots of Deleuze’s writings it is obvious there is a very strong connection between their respective philosophical systems. To properly understand Deleuze’s conception of the event developed in The Fold I would have to read these three books.

Here are some notes from The Concept of Nature, which was originally delivered as a series of lectures. The first chapter covers a critique of the established (essentially common sense) conception of “ourselves as perceiving attributes of things, and bits of matter are the things whose attributes we perceive” (26). To this he only offers the briefest of glimpses of what is to come in his argument:

“[T]he ultimate fact for sense-awareness is an event. This whole event is discriminated by us into partial events. We are aware of an event which is our bodily life, of an event which is the course of nature within this room, and of a vaguely perceived aggregate of other partial events.” (15)

Whitehead begins by distinguishing between heterogeneous thought and homogeneous thought. Heterogeneous thought about nature includes thinking about thought itself (3). There is an element of sense-perception that is unthought and this is sense-awareness. He then provides an example of the movement from the awareness of red with the content of individuality to the thought of red as merely a definite entity. This involves a definite loss of content (13). He is thinking heterogeneously about nature.

He distinguishes between three components of our knowledge of nature: fact, factors, and entities. Fact is the undifferentiated terminus of sense-awareness; factors are temrini of sense-awareness, differentiated as elements of fact; entities are factors in their function as the termini of throught.

He then goes on a very restrained British polemic against Aristotelian logic of ‘substance’ and the tendency to “postulate a substratum for whatever is disclosed in sense-awareness, namely to look below what we are aware of for the substance in the sense of the ‘concrete thing'” (16-18). To this he counters (weirdly in a slippage from the scientific ‘we’ to first person) that if “we are to look for substance anywhere, I should find it in events which are in some sense the ultimate substance of nature” (19). By this he means that instead of space and time being the external conditions of natural existence between substances, it is actually the relation between attributes. Attributes were once posited as secondary to and derivative from substances. “What we find in space are the red of the rose and the smell of jasmine and the noise of the cannon. We have all told our dentists where our toothache is. Thus space is not a relation between substances, but between attributes” (21).

Material entities are essentially a multiplicity of entities (22), he arrives at this at the ‘numerically divisible in space’ argument. INterestingly, and seemingly without cause, he argues that it is also essential that this dissociation of matter (of entities into multiplcities) be called to a halt and should be treated as units. The threshold for this is “arbitrary” (23). Next is time, which “(in the current philosophy) does not exert the disintegrating effect on matter which occupies it. If matter occupies a duration of time, the whole matter occupies every part of that duration” (23). Thus, he concludes the first lecture by voicing his positive opinion of the relativity between spoace and time and negative opinion towards matter as the untenable to be “relata for spatial relations.” “The true relata are events” (24).

The next lecture is another positioning argument against what Whitehead calls the ‘birfurcation of nature’. The nature apprehended in awareness (AIA) and the nature which is the cause of awareness (COA). They meet in the mind (30-31). The nature AIW “holds within it the greeness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of velvet.” The COA is the “conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce awareness of apparent nature.” He then provides the nifty example of the heat of fire being caused by a body as different to an action of nature upon the mind (perceiving redness and warmth), it is an interaction with nature (31). The four questins regarding the bifucation of nature concern 1)causality 2)time 3) space and 4)delusions.

Whitehead argues that this entire theory is based on the assumption that the mind can only know what itself has produced, but “in considering the mind we should wipe out all spatial metaphors, ‘such as within the mind’ and ‘without the mind'” (32). [As a sidenote, I wholeheartedly agree, especially when in comes to gaming theory! Blah spatial metaphors!] We should explain the redness and warmth of the fire with the agitated electrons, etc not separate.

He then moves on to a dicussion of the theory of absolute time and space. Boring! Absolute time is buttressed by 1) time extending beyond nature and 2) compared to relative theory [theory of relativity] it is difficult to derive the true serial character of time (34-35). Absolute space has two functions: space ordering and space occupation. It is a system of extensionless points ordered into relata according to the axiom of geometry. Objects, and not events, occupy space (36). However space does not extend beyond nature, unlike absolute time.

What bearing has this assumption on the concept of nature as bifurcated into causal nature and apparent nature? Causal events can occupy absolute time and space, which influences a mind to perceive apparent events occupying certain period and places of absolute time and space (38). Delusions are only apparent events without causal events. It is all perfectly logical. Whitehead then summarises why he disagrees with this theory:

“In the first place it seeks for the cause of knowledge of the thing known instead of seeking the character if the thing known: secondly it assumes a knowledge of time itself apart from events related in time: thirdly it assumes a knowledge of space in itself apart from events related in space.” (39)

A few pages later he provides an excellent example of what a philosophy of the event would look like. “[T]he fire is burning and we see a red coal. This is exaplined in sciences by radiant energy from the coal entering our eyes. But in seeking for such an explanation we are not asking what are the sort of occurences which are fitted to cause a mind to see red. The chain of causation is entirely different. The mind is cut out altogether. The real question is, When red is found in nature, what else is found there also? Namely we are asking for an analysis of the accompaniments in nature of the discovery of red in nature. […] [S]cience is not discussing the causes of knowledge, but the coherence of knowledge. the understanding which is sought be science is an understanding of relations within nature.” (41)

He then dicusses the bifurcation of nature in terms of ‘relational theories’, but how the theory of absolute time and space is the strongest example of the bifurcation of nature. (41-12)

The secondary quality perceived of nature and belonging to theories derived from the bifurcation of nature Whitehead now gives the name the ‘theory of psychic additions’ which “is a sound common-sense theory which lays immense stress on the obvious reality of time, space, solidity and inertia, but distrusts the minor artistic additions of colour, warmth and sound.” (43) Then he delivers one of the best lines of the book: “The theory is the outcome of common-sense in retreat.” take that!

He argues that a distinction in quality was derived by separating off various perceptions from each other. Each sensation (sight through to touch) involves the excitation of various nerves (43-44). Next he launches a polemic against a defence of the bifurcation theory, namely that the molecules and ether of science are purely conceptual:

“The current answer to these objections is that, though atoms are merely conceptual, yet they are an interesting and picteresque way of saying something else which is true of nature. But surely if it is something else that mean, for heaven’s sake say it. Do away with this elaborate machinery of a conceptual nature which consists of assertions about things which don’t exist in order to convey truths about things which do exist.” (45)

As announced earlier in the lecture the next series of lectures “seeks to outline how time and space are abstractions from more concrete elements in nature, namely, from events” (33). In chapter three he begins with time.

To be continued.

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