PRAGMATISM AND PROCESS PHILOSOPHY
A major theme in nineteenth-century thought is that the world is continually changing. Hegel believed that human history and everything around us are part of an ever-developing Absolute Mind. Darwin argued that all biological life—and even human social institutions—evolve from simple to more complex forms. As philosophy rounded the corner from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, the notion of change remained an important part of intellectual thought. Two philosophical movements in particular focus on change, namely pragmatism and process philosophy. Both approaches deny that there are fixed and unchanging truths; instead, we should understand things in terms of changing experiences and metaphysical processes.
Pragmatism emerged at the end of the nineteenth century as the most original contribution of American thought to the enterprise of philosophy. This movement received its initial theoretical formulation by Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914). It enjoyed wide and popular circulation through the brilliant and lucid essays of William James (1842–1910). It was then methodically implemented into the daily affairs of American institutions by John Dewey (1859–1952). The central message of these three philosophers is that there is little value in philosophical theories that do not somehow make a difference in daily life. Pragmatism was more of a method of solving problems than it was a metaphysical system of the world. Process philosophy, though, did offer a specific vision of the nature of things. Many writers, including some later pragmatists, are associated with process philosophy. The two leading proponents, though, are French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson (1859–1941) and British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947).
As a movement in philosophy, pragmatism was founded for the purpose of mediating between two divergent tendencies in nineteenth-century thought. On the one hand, there was the cumulative impact of empiricism, utilitarianism, and science, to which Darwin’s theory of evolution gave the most recent and striking claim to authoritative thought about human nature. The drift of this tradition was that human nature and the world were simply parts of a mechanical and biological process. On the other hand, there was a more human-centered tradition, stemming from Descartes’s rationalistic philosophy and moving through Kant, Hegel, and other German idealists. Between these two traditions there was an ever-widening gulf. Empirical philosophers and scientists rejected much rationalistic and idealistic philosophy because it lacked objective evidence. From the rational and idealistic points of view, science threatened moral and religious convictions and a general sense of human purpose.
Pragmatism mediated between these traditions, combining what was most significant in each of them. Like the empiricists the pragmatists thought that we have no conception of the whole of reality. We know things from many perspectives, and we must settle for a multifaceted approach to knowledge. Like the rationalists and idealists they saw morality, religion, and human purpose as constituting a significant aspect of our experience. Peirce, James, and Dewey each expressed a different aspect of pragmatism. Peirce was initially interested in logic and science, James wrote about psychology and religion, and Dewey was absorbed with the problems of ethics and social thought. They were all contemporaries, they all came from New England, and they were highly skilled academicians.
Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced purse ) was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1839, where his father was a noted Harvard professor of mathematics. He was educated in mathematics, science, and philosophy both at home under his father’s discipline and at Harvard College, where between the ages of 16 and 20 he was a student. After receiving an M.A. in mathematics and chemistry, he worked for three years at the Harvard Observatory and published his photometric researches in 1878. For thirty years, from 1861 to 1891, he was associated with the U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Survey. He was also for a short period a lecturer in logic at Johns Hopkins University. But Peirce was never a full-time member of a university faculty, presumably because his brilliance was overshadowed by personal eccentricities. Without an academic position he encountered resistance and indifference from publishers, so that very little of his total literary output appeared during his lifetime, and he received virtually none of the fame to which his abilities entitled him. Decades after his death, his works were collected and organized into several volumes, which stand as a prodigious achievement of creative thought. In his declining years Peirce faced financial difficulties, failing health, and virtual social rejection. His loyal friend throughout these difficulties was William James, who not only assisted him but became the channel through which Peirce’s original thoughts about pragmatism found their way into the thought of a whole generation throughout the world.
A Theory of Meaning
At the heart of Peirce’s pragmatism is a new explanation of how words acquire their meanings. He coined the word pragmatism from the Greek word pragma (meaning “act” or “deed”) in order to emphasize the fact that words derive their meanings from actions of some sort. Our ideas are clear and distinct only when we are able to translate them into some type of operation. For example, the adjectives hard and heavy have meaning only because we are able to conceive of some specific effects that are associated with these terms. Thus, hard means that which cannot be scratched by many other substances, and heavy means that which will fall if we let go of it. Underscoring the decisive role of effects in the meanings of words, Peirce argued that there would be absolutely no difference between a hard thing and a soft thing as long as they did not test differently. From such simple examples Peirce generalized about the nature of meaning and knowledge. His basic point was that “our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects.” That is, if words are to have any meaning, we must be able to use the operational formula, which says, “If A then B.” That is, when specific objects are present, we can expect specific effects to follow. Thus, a word has no meaning if it refers to an object about which no practical effects can be conceived.
Peirce was highly influenced by the language of science, since it is particularly scientific language that satisfies this pragmatic test for meaning. He was arguing against rationalist theories, which held that validity is based solely on the consistency between ideas themselves, with no reference to outside things. Earlier empiricists tried to show the shortcomings of rationalism, but Peirce found the assumptions of rationalism still very much alive. Descartes, for example, believed that intellectual certainty consisted in “clear and distinct” ideas, which we grasp by intuition. As such, our minds are purely theoretical instruments that can operate successfully in isolation from environmental circumstances. Against all of these assumptions, Peirce argued that thinking always occurs in a context, not in isolation from it. We derive meanings not through intuition but by experience or experiment. Thus, meanings are not individual or private but social and public. Again, if there is no way of testing ideas by their effects or public consequences, such ideas are meaningless. He believed that it was most important to distinguish between meaningful and meaningless contentions, particularly when we are torn between opposing systems of thought.
The Role of Belief
Peirce argued that belief occupies a middle position between thought and action. Beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions. But beliefs are “unfixed” by doubts. It is when the “irritation of doubt” causes a struggle to attain belief that the enterprise of thought begins. Through thought we try to fix our beliefs so that we have a guide for action. There are several ways in which we can fix our beliefs, according to Peirce. There is the method of tenacity, whereby people cling to beliefs, refusing to entertain doubts about them or to consider arguments or evidence for another view. Another method is to invoke authority, as when people in authority require the acceptance of certain ideas under threat of punishment. Still another method is that of the metaphysician or philosopher such as Plato, Descartes, or Hegel, who, according to Peirce, settle questions of belief by asking whether an idea was “agreeable to reason .” Peirce found himself in disagreement with all of these methods precisely because they could not achieve their intent, namely, to fix or settle belief. What they all lacked was some connection with experience and behavior.
Peirce therefore offered a fourth method, the method of science, whose chief virtue was its realistic basis in experience. The above-mentioned methods of tenacity, authority, and reason all rest on what we possess within our own minds as a consequence solely of our thinking. The method of science, by contrast, is built on the assumption that there are real things, things that are entirely independent of our opinions about them. Moreover, because these real things affect our senses according to regular laws, we can assume that they will affect each observer the same way. Beliefs that are grounded in real things can, therefore, be verified, and their “fixation” can be a public act rather than a private one. There is in fact no way to agree or disagree with a conclusion arrived at by means of the first three methods. All three attempts refer to nothing whose consequences or real existences can be tested. The method of tenacity is clearly irrational. The method of authority precludes argument. The method of a priori reasoning, because it occurs in isolation from facts, permits the affirmation of several different explanations of things, as was the case with the alternative metaphysical systems proposed by the Continental rationalists.
The Elements of Method
As a means of resolving conflicts between alternative beliefs, Peirce recommended the scientific method, which he felt combats personal prejudice. For one thing, the method of science requires that we state not only what truth we believe but also how we arrived at it. The procedures followed should be available to anyone who cares to retrace the same steps to test whether the same results will occur. Peirce continually emphasizes this public or community character of the method of science. Second, the method of science is highly self-critical. It subjects its conclusions to strict tests, and wherever shown, the conclusions of a theory are adjusted to fit the new evidence and insights. This, Peirce says, ought also to be our attitude toward all our beliefs. Third, Peirce felt that science requires a high degree of cooperation among all members of the scientific community. Such cooperation prevents any individual or group from shaping truth to fit its own interests. Conclusions of science, then, must be conclusions that all scientists can draw. Similarly, in questions of belief and truth, it should be possible for anyone to come to the same conclusions. This method of empirical inquiry means that there must be some practical consequence of any legitimate idea.
The rich flavor of William James’s writings reflects the equally rich quality and breadth of his life. Born in New York City in 1842, he grew up in a cultured family, which produced not only the outstanding American philosopher but also his brother Henry James, the gifted novelist. William James studied at Harvard and traveled to universities throughout Europe, acquiring a broad outlook both culturally and intellectually. He received his M.D. from the Harvard Medical School in 1869 and was appointed to its faculty in 1872 as an instructor in physiology. From medicine James moved to psychology and philosophy, producing in 1890 his famous Principles of Psychology . He was a member of the Harvard philosophy department, which included George Santayana and Josiah Royce. Although he did not write any philosophical treatises comparable in scope to his famous book on psychology, he published a great many definitive essays, which singly and collected in book form were read throughout the world. By the time of his death in 1910 at the age of 68, James had fashioned a new approach to philosophy and managed to communicate his pragmatic principles to an unusually wide audience. Starting from the work already done by Peirce, he took a fresh look at pragmatism and developed it along novel lines. Among the important topics to which James turned his attention, we will examine four: (1) the pragmatic method, (2) the pragmatic theory of truth, (3) the problem of free will, and (4) the function of the human will in the belief process.
Pragmatism as a Method
James thought that “the whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.” He emphasized concrete concerns of life—specifically, facts and actions as they affect our lives now and the future. But pragmatism as such contained no substance or content and no special information about human purpose or destiny. As a philosophy pragmatism did not have its own creed. It did not, as such, offer a world formula. “Pragmatism,” James writes, “is a method only.” Still, as a method, pragmatism assumed that human life has a purpose and that rival theories about human nature and the world need to be tested against this purpose. According to James, there is in fact no single definition of human purpose. Instead, our understanding of human purpose is part of the activity of thinking. Philosophical thinking arises when we want to understand things and the setting in which they live; purpose derives its meaning from a sense of being at home in the universe. James rejected rationalism chiefly because it was dogmatic and presumed to give conclusive answers about the world in terms that frequently left the issues of life untouched. By contrast, pragmatism “has no dogmas and no doctrines save its method.” As a method pragmatism takes its cue from the newly discovered facts of life. We should not accept as final any formulations in science, theology, or philosophy, but instead see them as only approximations. The value of any theory rests in its capacity to solve problems, and not in its internal verbal consistency. Instead of mere consistency, James writes, we “must bring out of each word its practical cash value”—that is, we must focus on results . When we find a theory that does not make a difference one way or another for practical life, then the theory is meaningless, and we should abandon it.
The Pragmatic Theory of Truth
Establishing the meaning of a concept is one thing, and establishing its truth is another. For example, it may be meaningful for me to hold to the view that the CIA is watching every move I make. From a pragmatic standpoint this contention is meaningful if it produces some kind of consequence—such as various activities among CIA agents and even some impact on how I conduct my private life. However, this does not mean that the CIA is truly watching me. A test for truth is pickier than a test for mere meaning. Even here, though, pragmatism offers a method. James first rejects standard theories of truth, such as what is now called the correspondence theory of truth: An idea is true if it corresponds to reality. This theory assumes that an idea “copies” reality, and an idea is, therefore, true if it copies what is “out there” accurately. According to James, though, on this theory “truth means essentially an inert static relation. When you’ve got your true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter. You’re in possession; you know .” But truth, according to James, is less fixed than this. Similar to the theory of meaning, truth involves asking, “What concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life?”
As an example of the pragmatic theory of truth, James asks us to consider a clock on the wall. We consider it to be a clock not because we have a “copyview” of it. The so-called reality of the clock consists of its internal mechanism, which we cannot see. Our idea of the clock consists mainly of its face and hands, which in no way matches “reality.” Still, our limited idea of the clock passes for true because we use this conception as a clock, and as such it works . Some practical consequences of this idea are that we can go to work “on time” and catch the train. We could scientifically verify aspects of our idea, such as inspecting the internal components of the clock. In point of fact, though, we rarely do this. What more would be added to the truth of our idea that the object before us is a clock than we already have in the successful regulation of our behavior? James writes, “For one truth-process completed there are a million in our lives that function in this state of nascency.” Truth, then, lives “on a credit system.” Ideas become true insofar as they help us to make successful connections among various parts of our experience. Truth is, therefore, part of the process of living. As part of a process, successful experiences make truth, and this constitutes the verification process.
Advocates of the correspondence theory believe that truths are absolute in the sense that there is a real clock on the wall whether anyone sees it or not. For James, though, questions about the “truth” of the clock arise only in actual life when we live “as if” that thing on the wall is a clock. Our successful behavior makes the truth of the clock. There is, then, no single absolute truth, but instead as many truths as there are concrete successful actions. James distinguished between what he called tough-minded and tenderminded approaches to truth. A tough-minded pragmatist would look only at more scientific kinds of successful behavior in the truth process. For example, my concept of the clock is true because I show up to events at the proper time, and I can check my notion of the clock against the time indicated by other clocks. A tender-minded pragmatist, though, would consider less scientific behavior in the truth process. For example, without scientifically analyzing things, my concept of the clock is true if it serves its principal function in organizing my daily routine. James believed that both the tough- and tender-minded approaches to truth were valid in their own ways. We cannot all be scientists. But this does not mean that truth is whimsical. Even with the tender-minded approach, a true belief must work beneficially, just as an untrue one will work destructively. For example, an imaginary clock will not do a good job of organizing my daily schedule and will in fact adversely affect my routine.
If we ask the pragmatist why anyone ought to seek the truth, James answers that “our obligation to seek the truth is part of our general obligation to do what pays,” just as we ought to seek health because it pays to be healthy. Above all, James thought that the pragmatic theory of truth could bring a desperately needed service to philosophy by providing a means for settling disputes. Some disputes cannot be resolved if each party simply affirms that his or her views are true. James would ask, Which theory fits the facts of real life? One such dispute, which has exercised philosophers through the ages, is the question of freedom versus determinism.
James was convinced that we cannot rationally prove that human will is either free or determined. We will only find equally good arguments for each side of the dispute. He was nevertheless convinced that the pragmatic method would shed new light on the problem. The crucial practical question here is, What difference does it make in actual life to accept one or the other side of a dispute? The issue is worth investigating since it involves something important about life: Either we are mechanically driven by physical forces or we have the power to shape at least some of our life events as we see fit. For James this was not simply an interesting puzzle. His whole philosophical orientation revolved around this problem of the role and status of the will. He was greatly concerned about human action and choosing those ideas and types of behavior with the highest value. Accordingly, he saw philosophy in terms of human striving, and this, he was convinced, indicated a certain kind of universe.
According to James, the issue of free will “relates solely to the existence of possibilities,” of things that may, but need not, be. The determinist says that there are no ambiguous or uncertain possibilities, that what will be will be. On this view “those parts of the universe already laid down absolutely appoint and decree what the other parts shall be. The future has no ambiguous possibilities in its womb.” On the other hand, the indeterminist says that there is some “loose play” in the universe and that the present arrangement of things does not necessarily determine what the future will be. Here, then, are two contradictory points of view. What divides us into possibility people and antipossibility people? The answer is differing claims of rationality. For some it seems more rational to say that all events are set down from eternity, whereas for others it seems more rational to assume that people can engage in genuine choice. If both of these points of view seem equally rational to their respective proponents, how can the dispute be resolved?
To solve the problem, according to James, we simply ask the pragmatic question, What does a deterministic world imply? That is, what kind of universe are we living in if all events without exception are rigorously determined from the beginning of time so that they could not have happened in any other way? We could only answer that such a universe is like a machine, in which each part fits tightly and all the gears are interlocked, so that the slightest motion of one part causes a motion of every other part. There is no loose play in the machine. But James feels that we are not just mechanical parts in a huge machine. What makes us different is our consciousness. For one thing, we are capable of judgments of regret. For example, someone may regret caving into peer pressure during high school, failing to study during college, or doing a poor job at work. But how can we regret anything if events were rigidly fixed and we could not have done otherwise?
Not only do we make judgments of regret, but we make moral judgments of approval and disapproval. We persuade others to perform some actions and avoid others. We also punish or reward people for their actions. All these forms of judgment imply that we constantly face genuine choices. A forced or determined act is simply not a choice. In actual practical life we see others and ourselves as vulnerable. People are capable of lying, stealing, and killing. We judge these acts to be wrong not only in retrospect but because we feel that they were not inevitable when they were done. People doing these things “could have” done otherwise. The determinist must explain away all of these judgments and instead define the world as a place where what “ought to be” is impossible. James concludes that this problem is a “personal” one and that he cannot conceive of the universe as a place where murder must happen. Instead, it is a place where murder can happen and ought not . For James, then, there are very practical implications to the free will issue; the free will option is pragmatically more true because it better accommodates judgments of regret and morality. If this reflects only his “instinct” concerning the kind of universe this is, then, James says, “there are some instinctive reactions which I, for one, will not tamper with.”
The Will to Believe
The tough-minded scientist might think that our individual hopes should have no impact on the truth that we are investigating. In fact, a scientist might argue that we should abstain from belief in situations in which there is no clear evidence. For example, religious questions have a way of running ahead of evidence. Thus, in the absence of any clear evidence for the existence of God, a scientist might recommend agnosticism—neither believing nor disbelieving in God. In his essay “The Will to Believe,” James combats this scientific view and argues that, when reason is truly neutral on an urgent issue, we may rightfully believe based solely on our feelings. However, we cannot will to believe just anything under any and all circumstances. This right to believe as we feel applies to only special situations. Right off, according to James, our reason must be completely neutral on the issue. For example, I am not justified in believing that Abraham Lincoln is still alive, since there are quite a number of compelling reasons to believe that he is dead. With other issues, though, reason seems to be genuinely neutral, such as the question of God’s existence. According to James, proofs and disproofs for God are equally shaky. Beyond the stipulation of reason’s neutrality, James lists three other conditions that determine when emotionally based beliefs are justified.
First, the belief must be a live option—as opposed to a dead one. That is, it must be a conception that we are psychologically capable of believing. For example, if a traditional Christian were asked to believe in the Muslim savior Mahdi, he or she would not be psychologically capable of making that shift. Belief in Mahdi, then, would be a dead option for such Christian believers. Second, the choice must be forced in the sense that we must either accept or reject a conception, with nothing in between. For example, I must either accept or not accept the contention that the Christian God exists. Third, the issue must be momentous, that is, of major concern rather than trivial. Belief in God seems to be a matter of some urgency. When all three of these conditions are fulfilled, we have what James calls a “genuine option.” He then states his thesis:
Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, “Do not decide, but leave the question open,” is itself a passional decision,—just like deciding yes or no,—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.
In short, James holds that, when reason is neutral in matters that are genuine options, we can decide the issue based on our hopes and feelings.
According to James, we often receive real benefits when we proactively believe things that we cannot rationally demonstrate. This involves some intellectual risk, but it is a risk worth taking. Suppose a young man wants to know whether a certain young woman loves him. Let us also suppose that in fact she does love him but he does not know it. If he assumes that she does not, then his doubt will prevent him from saying or doing what would cause her to reveal her love. In this case he would “lose the truth.” His will to believe would not necessarily create her love. That is already there. But belief has the effect of making what is already there come full circle. If the young man requires evidence before he can know the truth, he will never know it, because the evidence he is looking for will become available only after he acts on his belief. Similarly, in the realm of religious experience, we might not discover religious truth until we actually become religious believers—even in the absence of evidence for our belief. Again, our proactive religious belief would not make our religious experiences true, but it would provide us with the only means of discovering their truth.
Occasionally, nonrational proactive beliefs can even create facts, and not just discover them. For example, I may get a job promotion chiefly because I believed that I could achieve it and acted resolutely on that belief. Assuming the truth of my abilities, I incorporate this into my life and take a risk for the sake of it. My faith creates its own verification. Similarly, in a political campaign a candidate’s optimistic will to believe can generate enough enthusiasm among constituents to win a majority vote. James illustrates this point with an example of a train robbery. All of the passengers on a train may be individually brave, but each one is afraid that in resisting the robbers he or she will be shot. However, if they optimistically believed that the others would rise up, resistance could begin. But if one passenger actually rose up, that could influence the others and would help create a unified resistance.
William James’s lively writing style was unsurpassable, but in the final analysis John Dewey was the most influential of the pragmatists. By the time of his death at the age of 92, Dewey had brought about a reconstruction of philosophy and influenced many American institutions, particularly school systems and some political processes. His influence extended beyond the boundaries of the United States, especially into Japan and China, where his lectures made a lasting impression. Born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1859, Dewey was educated at the University of Vermont and at Johns Hopkins University, where he received his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1884. For the next ten years, except for one year when he was at Minnesota, he taught at the University of Michigan, and for the decade after that at the University of Chicago, where he gained renown for his pragmatic concepts of education. As director of the Laboratory School for children at the University of Chicago, he experimented with a more permissive and creative atmosphere for learning. He set aside the more traditional and formal method of learning—that is, listening and taking notes—and instead encouraged students to become directly involved with educational projects. From 1904 to 1929 he was a member of the faculty at Columbia University. He produced an enormous number of writings even after his retirement in 1929. His interests covered a wide range, and he wrote on logic, metaphysics, and the theory of knowledge. But as Dewey’s chief expression of pragmatism was in the social rather than individual realm, his most influential works related to education, democracy, ethics, religion, and art.
The Spectator versus Experience
Dewey’s chief quarrel with earlier philosophy was that it confused the true nature and function of knowledge. For the most part, he said, the empiricists assumed that thinking refers to fixed things in nature—that for each idea there is a corresponding something in reality. It is as though knowing is modeled after what is supposed to happen when we look at something. Thus, to see something is to have an idea of it. This he called a “spectator theory of knowledge.” But rationalists argued that the reverse was true, namely, that when we have a clear idea we are guaranteed that the object of our thought exists in reality. In either case, empiricists and rationalists both viewed the human mind as an instrument for considering what is fixed and certain in nature. Nature is one thing and the mind another, and knowing is the relatively simple activity of looking, as a spectator does, at what is there.
Dewey believed that this view of knowledge is both too static and too mechanical. Influenced by Darwin’s theories, Dewey looked on human beings as biological organisms. As such we can best be understood in relation to our environment. Like any other biological organism, human beings struggle for survival. Although Dewey gave up his early Hegelian orientation, he still believed that human beings were enmeshed in a dialectic process—specifically, a conflict in the material or natural environment. Dewey’s grand concept was, therefore, experience, a concept he employed for the purpose of connecting people as dynamic biological entities with their precarious environments. If I and my environment are both dynamic, it is clear that a simple spectator-type theory of knowledge will not work. My mind is not a fixed substance, and knowledge is not a set of static concepts. Human intelligence is the ability within us to cope with our environment. Thinking is not an individual act carried on in private or in isolation from practical problems. Instead, thinking, or active intelligence, arises in “problem situations”; thinking and doing are intimately related.
All thinking, Dewey says, has two aspects, namely, “a perplexed, troubled, or confused situation at the beginning and a cleared-up, unified, resolved situation at the close.” He named his theory instrumentalism, emphasizing that thinking is always instrumental in solving problems. Whereas empiricism and rationalism separate thinking and doing, instrumentalism holds that reflective thought is always involved in transforming a practical situation. My mind does not know simply individual things, but instead mediates between myself as an organism and my environment. My mind spreads itself over a range of things as these bear upon my desires, doubts, and dangers. Knowing may very well consist of a “cognitive act”—of an activity in my mind—but the full description of knowing must include the environmental origin of the problem or situation that calls forth the cognitive act. In this way instrumentalism differs from empiricism and rationalism.
Thinking, therefore, is not a quest for the “truth,” as though the truth were a static and eternal quality in things. Thinking, rather, is the act of trying to achieve an adjustment between individuals and their environments. The best test of the value of any philosophy, Dewey says, is to ask, “Does it end in conclusions which, when referred back to ordinary life-experiences and their predicaments, render them more significant, more luminous to us and make our dealings with them more fruitful?” In this sense his instrumentalism is a problem-solving theory of knowledge.
Habit, Intelligence, and Learning
Dewey built his theory of instrumentalism around a special view of human nature. Even though he believed that people are strongly influenced by education and social surroundings, he nevertheless held that we have certain instincts. These instincts are not a fixed inheritance, he argued, but instead are “highly flexible” and will work differently under different social conditions. He writes that “any impulse may become organized into almost any disposition according to the way it interacts with surroundings.” For example, fear may become cowardice, or reverence for superiors, or the reason for accepting superstitions. Just what an impulse will result in depends on the way the impulse is interwoven with other impulses, as well as with outlets supplied by our environment. Dewey thus rejected the simple, mechanical stimulusresponse account of behavior. Even when an impulse always reflects itself in the same way, this is not a mechanical necessity but only the product of habit . But habit is only one way of responding to the stimuli of one’s impulses, and there is no necessary connection between a person’s natural impulses and any particular response. All responses, Dewey argues, are learned through the interaction between human nature and culture. Habits, then, do not represent fixed forms of human behavior. We can even test them for their usefulness based on whether they support life and generally facilitate the successful adaptation of a person to the environment.
Perhaps the most important implication of Dewey’s analysis concerns the nature of social and human “evil.” Evil is not the product of some permanent instinct or impulse in human nature that cannot be altered. Instead, evil is the product of the special ways a culture has shaped and conditioned people’s impulses. On this view evil is the product of the “inertness of established habit.” Intelligence itself is a habit by which we adjust our relation to its environment. Habits therefore include not only ways of reacting to certain stimuli but also ways of thinking about the environment. Since all habits are only established but not necessary types of behavior, the clue to overcoming personal and social evil is to alter a society’s habits—its habits of response and its habits of thought. Nothing is more important than education in remolding a society. If we are creatures of habit, then education provides the conditions for developing the most useful and creative habits. Dewey regretted that progress in the past had been achieved only when some catastrophe or major social upheaval broke the spell of long-standing habits. He preferred a more controlled approach to change, and nothing, he thought, provides us with more power to control than knowledge. Instead of revolution, therefore, we should bring about change through the skillful alteration of habits through education. He was convinced that “the chief means of continuous, graded, economical improvement and social rectification lies in utilizing the opportunities of educating the young to modify prevailing types of thought and desire.” The spirit of education should be experimental, because our minds are fundamentally problem-solving instruments. It is, therefore, more important to try alternative means for successfully solving problems than to pursue neat theoretical formulations.
Dewey’s instrumentalism was governed by the presuppositions of science. Like science, education should recognize the intimate connection between action and thought—between experiment and reflection. Achieving knowledge is a continuous process. It is a struggle to fashion theory in the context of experiment and thought. But if education is the key to social improvement, and if experimentation is the best way to discover the instrumental means for solving problems, the crucial questions concern the problem of ends. Improvement assumes a scale of values, and means are employed toward ends. How does society discover its ends or the foundations of its values? Dewey specifically examined this difficult problem of relating facts to value, and science to morality, and in the process fashioned a new theory of value.
Value in a World of Fact
Dewey’s theory of value followed his general theory of knowledge. We discover values the same way that we discover facts, namely, through experience. Values do not exist as eternal entities to be discovered by the theoretical mind. Every person experiences the problem of choosing between two or more possibilities. The question about values arises in these experiences in which choices have to be made. We most often make choices about means for achieving ends. Where an end is already clear, we can pursue the means with scientific rigor. For Dewey the act that will bring about the end most successfully is by definition the most “valuable” act. Suppose that the roof on my house leaks. This at once raises the questions of both ends and means —the goal of stopping the leak and the ways of accomplishing this. I quickly realize that a leaky roof calls for action. Before I begin any action, I try to intelligently sort out the various possibilities for stopping the leak, drawing on past experience or experiment. According to Dewey, to deal effectively with this problem, I do not need to draw on elaborate value theories. He thus rejected any theory of values grounded in so-called essences of things or transcendent eternal truth. There is, Dewey says, “only relative, not absolute, impermeability and fixity of structure.” Since the quest for values rests on a scientific methodology, all that we need to do is intelligently sort out the best means to achieve our aims.
Since intelligence is the agency for bridging the gap between any problem and its solution, Dewey believed that this same experimental and instrumental approach could successfully resolve the problems of individual and social destiny. This is so for value theories pertaining to morality, social policy, politics, and economics. His optimism rested on the spectacular successes of the sciences. If we were to ask Dewey where we could discover values in the absence of traditional moral and religious standards, he would answer, for the most part “from the findings of the natural sciences.” There is some resemblance between Dewey’s theory and utilitarianism—the view that right actions are those that produce the best consequences for society. However, Dewey sought to go beyond the theory of utilitarianism. Our moral choices begin by designating what we in fact desire, such as a fixed roof or a reformed school system. We then submit these desires to the inspection of our intelligence, which in turn offers a satisfactory solution to the problem.
Unfortunately, we cannot devise a neat formula for determining how any given act will terminate and what the best means might be for attaining an end. Life is simply too dynamic and the circumstances of behavior too diverse to permit the making of any list of rules. The best values are those that produce satisfactory consequences, relative to the aim that we hope to achieve. It is through experience that we discover ends toward which life and behavior should move. According to Dewey, each generation should formulate its own ends in the context of democracy. Democracy itself represented Dewey’s faith in the capacities of human intelligence. He believed that apart from “pooled and cooperative experience” there is no reliable source of knowledge, wisdom, or guidance for collective action.
Just when modern science was reaching its most impressive heights of achievement, two bold speculative philosophers called into question the basic assumptions of scientific thought. Neither Henri Bergson nor Alfred North Whitehead wished to deny that the scientific method gave people considerable control over nature and, to that extent, was a brilliantly successful enterprise. What concerned them primarily was a philosophical question, namely, whether reality was what science assumed it to be. As late as the second half of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, the major assumption of science was that nature consists of material objects located in space. On this view matter is the final, irreducible stuff out of which all things are formed. The model for thinking about the contents and behavior of nature was that of a machine. All the particular things in nature were thought to be parts of a large mechanism. This meant that the behavior of each part could in time be described with mathematical exactness, since material objects moved in space in accordance with precise rules or laws.
Moreover, as parts of a mechanism, things were related to each other in a tight sequence of cause and effect. Human nature was also viewed in these material and mechanical terms. As parts of a tightly organized cosmic machine, people were no longer thought of as being “free,” as possessing freedom of the will. Each of these assumptions raised serious philosophical problems for Bergson and Whitehead. They wondered whether nature really does consist of inert material objects located in space. They also wondered whether the human intellect is capable of discovering “out there” such an orderly and mechanical arrangement of things as the logical and mathematical reasoning of science portrays. How, moreover, can there be any genuine novelty in nature if the basic reality is material and its various parts are organized in a tight mechanism? Can a world made of material things ever become anything more than these same objects simply rearranged from time to time? How, in short, can inert matter overcome its static status and evolve? How can we explain the concrete experience of life in terms of a lifeless nature? And how can human freedom be explained in a thoroughly mechanical universe? Science itself had recently developed new concepts—for example, the theory of evolution—that made the mechanical model of nature less and less plausible.
Whitehead pointed out that late in the nineteenth century the people of science “were quite unaware that the ideas they were introducing, one after the other, were finally to accumulate into a body of thought inconsistent with the Newtonian ideas dominating their thoughts and shaping their types of expression.” Whitehead moved, as it were, from within science to his metaphysics, drawing out many of the implications of the emerging new physics. Similarly, Bergson had no intention of rejecting science, but thought instead that metaphysics and science could enrich each other. What Bergson and Whitehead did challenge in science, however, was the assumption that the scientific type of thought could be the sole comprehensive source of knowledge. Accordingly, they sought to show just what the limits of science are and what unique insights could be provided by discovering the metaphysical processes that form reality.
Henri Bergson was born in Paris in 1859, the brilliant son of a Polish father and an English mother. This same year saw the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and the birth of John Dewey. Bergson’s rise in the academic world was rapid. At age 22 he became professor of philosophy at the Angers Lycée, and in 1900 he was appointed to the distinguished chair of modern philosophy at the Collège de France. With uncommon lucidity and a captivating style, Bergson wrote a series of works that won wide attention and stimulated considerable discussion, including Time and Free Will (1889), Matter and Memory (1897), An Introduction to Metaphysics (1903), Creative Evolution (1907), and The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932). These last three works gained particular fame and contain his most distinctive ideas. Their publication assured him of a worldwide reputation and attracted people from many countries to hear his lectures in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1941 at the age of 82.
Going Around versus Entering Into
At the center of Bergson’s philosophy was his conviction that there are “two profoundly different ways of knowing a thing.” The first way, he says, “implies that we move around the object,” and the second, that “we enter into it.” Knowledge derived in the first way depends on the vantage point from which we observe an object, and therefore this type of knowledge will be different for each observer and, on that account, relative. Moreover, knowledge derived by observation is expressed in symbols, where the symbols used can refer not only to this specific object but to any and all similar objects. The second kind of knowledge, however, is absolute, Bergson says, because in this case, by “entering” the object, we overcome the limitations of any particular perspective and grasp the object as it really is.
Bergson illustrates these two types of knowing with several examples. First, there is the example of the movement of an object in space. My observation of this object, he says, will vary with the point of view from which I observe it, particularly whether I myself am moving or stationary. When I try to describe this motion, my expression of it will vary with the points of reference to which I relate it. Both in observing and in describing the moving object, I am placed outside of it. In describing the object’s motion, I think of a line that is divided into units, and I express this through the symbol of a graph with its axes, a series of points through which the object is thought to move. By contrast to this attempt to plot and chart movement in terms of discrete units of space, there is, Bergson says, the true movement, a continuous flow, whereby there are in reality no points being crossed.
Suppose, Bergson says, that you were inside the object as it moved. You would then know the object as it really is and moves, and not merely as translated into the symbolic language of points and units of distance. For, “what I experience will depend neither on the point of view I may take up in regard to the object, since I am inside the object itself, nor on the symbols by which I may translate the motion, since I have rejected all translations in order to possess the original.” Instead of trying to grasp the movement from where I stand in my static position, I must try to grasp the object’s motion from where it is, from within, as the motion is in the object itself. When I raise my own arm, I have a simple and single perception of the movement I have created; I have an “absolute” knowledge of this movement. But, Bergson says, for the spectator watching me raise my arm from the outside, your arm passes through one point, then through another, and between these points there will be still other points. . . . Viewed from the inside, then, an absolute is a simple thing; but looked at from the outside, that is to say, relatively to other things, it becomes, in relation to these signs which express it, the gold coin for which we never seem able to finish giving small change. The case is the same when we take a character in a novel. The author labors to describe his traits and to make him engage in action and dialogue. But, Bergson says, “all this can never be equivalent to the simple and indivisible feeling which I should experience if I were able for an instant to identify myself with the person of the hero himself.”
The reason descriptive traits do not help me know this particular hero is that such traits are merely symbols, “which can make him known to me only by so many comparisons with persons or things I know already.” Such symbols take me outside of him, and “they give me only what he has in common with others and not what belongs to him alone.” It is not possible, Bergson says, to perceive what constitutes a person’s “essence” from without, because by definition his essence is internal and, therefore, cannot be expressed by symbols. Description and analysis require the use of symbols, but symbols are always “imperfect in comparison with the object of which a view has been taken, or which the symbols seek to express.” Not all the photographs of Paris, taken from every conceivable point of view, and not even motion pictures, would ever be equivalent to the solid Paris in which we live and move. Not all translations of a poem could render the inner meaning of the original. In every example there is, first of all, the original, which we can know absolutely only by entering into it. There is, second of all, the “translation,” or copy, which we know only relatively, depending on our vantage point and the symbols we use for expression.
What, more precisely, does it mean to “go around” an object and to “enter into it”? To go around an object is what Bergson means by that special activity of the intellect that he calls analysis . By contrast, to enter into an object is what is implied by his use of the term intuition . By intuition Bergson means “the kind of intellectual sympathy by which one places oneself within an object in order to coincide with what is unique in it and consequently inexpressible.” The basic contrast between science and metaphysics turns on the difference between analysis and intuition .
The Scientific Way of Analysis
Bergson believed that in the end scientific meaning, insofar as it is based on analysis, misrepresents the nature of whatever object it analyzes. This follows, he said, from the fact that analysis “is the operation which reduces the object to elements already known, that is, to elements common both to it and other objects.” Therefore, “to analyze . . . is to express a thing as a function of something other than itself.” For example, to analyze a rose is to take it apart and discover its constituents. From such an analysis we do in fact derive knowledge of the rose, but in such a state of analysis, the rose is no longer the living thing it was in the garden. Similarly, the science of medicine discovers much knowledge of human anatomy by dissecting the body.
In every case, Bergson says, the analytic intellect learns, ironically, by destroying the object’s essence. Its essence is its dynamic, thriving, pulsing, living, continuing existence—its duration. Analysis, however, interrupts this essential duration. It stops life and movement. It separates into several independent and static parts what in true life is a unified, organic, and dynamic reality. The language of analytic science tends, moreover, to exaggerate even further this static and disjointed conception of things through its use of symbols. Each new object is described by science using as many symbols as there are ways of looking at a thing. And, Bergson says, the content of each such perception is abstracted, that is, drawn or lifted out from the object. Thus, the intellect forms a series of concepts about a thing, “cutting out of reality according to the lines that must be followed in order to act conveniently upon it.” Since we think in terms of our language—that is, in terms of single concepts—we tend to analyze things into as many concepts as there are ways of looking at and moving around an object. This is the ordinary function of scientific analysis, namely, to work with symbols. Even the sciences concerned with life “confine themselves to the visible form of living beings, their organs and anatomical elements. They make comparisons between these forms; they reduce the more complex to the more simple; in short, they study the workings of life in what is, so to speak, only its visual symbol.” There seem to be, Bergson says, a “symmetry, concord and agreement” between our intellect and matter, as though our intellect were made to analyze and utilize matter. Indeed, he says, “our intelligence is the prolongation of our senses.” Even before there was either science or philosophy, “the role of intelligence was already that of manufacturing instruments and guiding the action of our body on surrounding bodies.”
If, then, the intellect has been made to utilize matter, “its structure has no doubt been modeled upon that matter.” But it is precisely for this reason that the intellect has a limited function. Its very structure and function fit it for analysis—for separating what is unified into its parts. Even when it comes to the study of the most concrete reality—namely, the self —the intellect, proceeding analytically, is never capable of discovering the true self. Like all other sciences, psychology analyzes the self into separate states such as sensations, feelings, and ideas, which it studies separately. According to Bergson, to study the self by studying separately the various psychical states is like trying to know Paris by studying various sketches, all of which are labeled Paris . The psychologists claim to find the “ego” in the various psychical states, not realizing that “this diversity of states has itself only been obtained . . . by transporting oneself outside the ego altogether.” And “however much they place the states side by side, multiplying points of contact and exploring the intervals, the ego always escapes them.”
The Metaphysical Way of Intuition
But, Bergson says, there is another way of knowing the self, and that is by intuition. As he says, “there is one reality, at least, which we all seize from within, by intuition and not by simple analysis. It is our own personality through time— our self which endures.” Just as Descartes did, Bergson founded his philosophy on the immediate knowledge of the self. But whereas Descartes built a system of rationalism on his self-knowledge, Bergson set forth the method of intuition, which was in sharp contrast to rationalism. Intuition, Bergson argued, is a kind of intellectual sympathy. It enables our consciousness to become identified with an object. Intuition “signifies . . . immediate consciousness, a vision which is scarcely distinguishable from the object seen, a knowledge which is contact or even coincidence.”
Most importantly, Bergson says, “to think intuitively is to think in duration.” This is the difference between analytic and intuitive thought. Analysis begins with the static and reconstructs movement as best it can with immobilities in juxtaposition. By contrast, “intuition starts from movement, posits it, or rather perceives it as reality itself, and sees in immobility only an abstract moment, a snapshot taken by our mind.” Ordinarily, analytic thought pictures the new as a novel arrangement of what already exists; although nothing is ever lost, neither is anything ever created. But “intuition, bound up to a duration which is growth, perceives in it an uninterrupted continuity of unforeseeable novelty; it sees, it knows that the mind draws from itself more than it has, that spirituality consists in just that, and that reality, impregnated with spirit, is creation.” Intuition, then, discovers that the self is in enduring and continuous flux.
Bergson compares the inner life of the self to a continually rolled up thread on a ball: “For our past follows us, it swells incessantly with the present that it picks up on its way; and consciousness means memory.” An even better way of thinking about the self, he says, is to imagine an infinitely small elastic body, which is gradually drawn out in such a manner that from that original body comes a constantly lengthening line. While even this image is not satisfactory to him, Bergson does see in it an analogy to human personality. The drawing out of the elastic body is a continuous action representing the duration of the ego, which is the pure mobility of the self. But whatever images are used to describe it, “the inner life is all this at once: variety of qualities, continuity of progress, and unity of direction. It cannot be represented by images. . . . No image can replace the intuition of duration.”
The Process of Duration
Bergson focused on the process in all things that he called duration, that is, becoming. Duration, he argued, constitutes the continuous stream of experience in which we live. His criticism of classical schools of philosophy was that they failed to take duration seriously. For the most part, philosophers such as Plato, Descartes, and Kant sought to interpret the world through fixed structures of thought. This was particularly the case with Plato, whose notion of the Forms provides us with a static structure of reality. Even the empiricists, in spite of their preoccupation with experience, analyzed experience into static components. This was so for Hume, who described knowledge in terms of individual impressions. Neither the rationalists nor the empiricists, Bergson charged, took the matter of mobility, development, becoming, and duration seriously. He was not entirely clear about how this metaphysical notion of duration could be employed in scientific knowledge. But he was certain that to “think in duration” is to have a true grasp of reality. Such thought also gives us a more accurate notion of time—real and continuous time—as compared with the “spatialized” time created by the intellect.
Only when we think of time and motion in such “spatialized” terms do we encounter the logical paradoxes that Zeno spoke of. Zeno, you will remember, said that a flying arrow really does not move, because at each instant the arrow occupies a single point in space, which would mean that at each instant the arrow is at rest. Bergson says that Zeno’s argument would be irrefutable if his assumptions about space and time were correct. But he argues that Zeno was in error in assuming that there are real positions in space and discrete units of time. Bergson suggests that these so-called positions are merely suppositions of the intellect. The units of time are only the artificial segments into which the analytic intellect slices what in reality is a continuous flow. What Zeno’s paradoxes show us is that it is impossible to construct mobility out of static positions, or true time out of instants. Although our intellects are capable of comprehending static parts, we are incapable of grasping movement or duration. Only intuition can grasp duration. And reality is duration. Reality, Bergson says, does not consist of things, but only of “things in the making, not self-maintaining states, but only changing states.” Rest is only apparent, for all reality “is tendency, if we agree to mean by tendency an incipient change of direction.”
Evolution and the Vital Impulse
Is not the theory of evolution an example of how science can successfully understand duration and becoming? After examining the major conceptions of evolution, Bergson concludes that none of these scientific theories are adequate, and thus, he offers a theory of his own. The particular inadequacy he found in the other theories was their inability to give a convincing account of how the transition is made through the gap that separates one level from a higher level. Darwin speaks of variations among members of a species, and other biologists speak of mutations as the conditions leading some members to possess variations favorable for survival. But these accounts do not explain how such variations in a species could occur. They merely hold that either slowly or suddenly a change occurs, presumably in some part of the organism. This overlooks the functional unity of an organism, which requires that any variation in one part must be accompanied by variations throughout the organism. Again, it does not explain just how this can occur. This leaves unanswered the question of how there can be a continuity of function in spite of successive changes of form. The neo-Lamarckian theory attributed evolution to the special “effort” employed by certain organisms, causing them to develop capacities favorable to survival. But can such acquired characteristics be transmitted from one generation to the next? Bergson insisted that although “effort” had some promising implications, it was too haphazard a notion to explain the overall process of development.
Evolution, Bergson concluded, is best explained in terms of a vital impulse ( élan vital ), which drives all organisms toward constantly more complicated and higher types of organization. The vital impulse is the essential interior element of all living things, and it is the creative power that moves in unbroken continuity through all things. Since the intellect can grasp only static things, it is not capable of grasping the vital impulse, because this is the essence of duration and of movement, and “all change, all movement, [is] . . . absolutely indivisible.” Bergson argued that knowing is a secondary activity. Living, though, is more basic and, therefore, is primary. Intuition and consciousness, not analytic intellect, grasp this primary life and discover it to be a continuous and undivided process of which all things are expressions and not parts. All things are motivated by this vital impulse, and it is the fundamental reality. We discover it first through the immediate awareness of our own continuous self: We discover that we endure. Here, finally, is where intuition must challenge intellect. For intellect, as we have seen, views movement as static states. Intuition, though, discovers that movement is continuous, that it cannot be reduced to parts, and that the creative process caused by the vital impulse is irreversible. Bergson writes that “to get a notion of this irreducibility and irreversibility, we must do violence to the mind, go counter to the natural bent of the intellect. But that is just the function of philosophy.”
The intellect would describe evolution as a single and steady line moving upward through measurable levels. Intuition, though, suggests differing tendencies at work. According to Bergson, the vital impulse moved in three discernible directions, producing (1) vegetative beings, (2) anthropods, and (3) vertebrates (including, finally, human beings). Distinguishing intellect and intuition, he says that the emergence of intellect and matter occurred together, and these were intended to work together. He writes, “Our intellect in the narrow sense of the word, is intended to secure the perfect fitting of our body to its environment, to represent the relations of external things among themselves— in short, to think matter.” Moreover, “matter is weighted with geometry.” But neither matter nor geometrical figures represent ultimate reality. The vital impulse must itself resemble consciousness, from whence emerged life and all its creative possibilities. Evolution is creative precisely because the future is open. There is no preordained “final” goal; duration constantly endures, producing always genuinely novel events, like an artist who never knows precisely what she will create until she has created her work. Bergson finally refers to the creative effort of the vital impulse as being “of God, if it is not God himself.”
Morality and Religion
Bergson argues that there are two sources of morality. The first is the sheer feeling of the necessity for social solidarity, and to achieve such solidarity, a society formulates certain rules of obligation. The second source lies in a deeper seat of feeling, which is sparked by the example of great moral people whose emotional appeal transcends particular cultural groups. These two sources—the pressure of social necessity and the aspiration toward higher types of life— reflect the differences between intellect and intuition. The intellect thinks in particular terms, directing specific rules to specific people to achieve specific ends. To this extent, the intellect tends to restrict morality to a closed society. Bergson was aware that the intellectually oriented Stoics believed that reason is a source of universal morality. But even when the intellect formulates laws for all people, we still need intuition to develop a genuine morality that extends to a wider group. Intuition opens up richer sources of emotional power, at once inducing aspiration and providing creative power to embrace new types of life. Such moral progress occurs only when obscure moral heroes appear. These mystics and saints raise humanity to a new destiny and “see in their mind’s eye a new social atmosphere, an environment in which life would be more worth living.” In this way morality moves constantly from a consideration of ourselves and our society to the larger field of humanity.
The difference between intellect and intuition is reflected also in two types of religion, which Bergson calls static and dynamic . Since we find that all people are religious in one way or another, religion must be due to some inherent aspect of human structure. Moreover, since the intellect is formed to aid us in survival, the intellect must be the source of religion, inasmuch as religion presumes to answer certain basic demands of life. Religious concepts seek to provide security, confidence, and a defense against fear. But these concepts soon become institutionalized and are converted into belief to protect them against critical reason. They are often surrounded by ceremonies and disciplines and tend to become embedded in the social structure. This is static religion, the religion of social conformity. Dynamic religion, on the other hand, is more in the nature of mysticism. Bergson’s definition of mysticism closely follows his notion of intuition when he says that “the ultimate end of mysticism is the establishment of a contact, consequently of a partial coincidence, with the creative effort which life itself manifests.” Just as intuition grasps reality more completely than intellect does, so does dynamic religion discover God more vividly. For, Bergson says, we must consider static religion “as the crystallization, brought about by a scientific process of cooling, of what mysticism had poured, white hot, into the soul of man.”
Whitehead reacted, as Bergson did, against the analytic type of thought, which assumed that facts exist in isolation from other facts. His main theme was that “connectedness is the essence of all things.” What science tends to separate, philosophy must try to see as an organic unity. Thus, “the red glow of the sunset should be as much a part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.” The function of natural philosophy, he thought, is “to analyze how these various elements of nature are connected.” Describing Wordsworth’s romantic reaction against the scientific mentality, Whitehead says that “Wordsworth was not bothered by any intellectual antagonism. What moved him was moral repulsion.” He was repulsed by the fact that scientific analysis left something out, “that what had been left out comprised everything that was most important,” namely, moral intuitions and life itself. Agreeing with Wordsworth, Whitehead went on to say that “neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of really real things whose interconnections and individual characters constitute the universe.” And, he says, “it is important therefore to ask what Wordsworth found in nature that failed to receive expression in science. I ask this question in the interest of science itself.” Whitehead was convinced that “the status of life in nature . . . is the modern problem of philosophy and science.” Although he shared these same problems with Bergson, Whitehead brought a different intellectual background to their solution and, therefore, produced a different and novel speculative metaphysics.
Alfred North Whitehead had three careers, two in England and one in America. Born in the village of Kent in 1861, he was educated at Sherborn School and at Trinity College in Cambridge. For twenty-five years he taught mathematics at Trinity. It was here, too, that Whitehead collaborated with Bertrand Russell on their famed Principia Mathematica, which went to press in 1910. From Trinity he moved to London, eventually becoming associated with the University of London as a member of its faculty of science and later as dean of faculty. During these thirteen years in London, he also developed a strong interest in the problems of higher education, being concerned particularly with the impact of modern industrial civilization on the enterprise of learning. But his major writings while in London represented an attempt to replace Isaac Newton’s concept of nature with his own empirically grounded theory. These works on the philosophy of science include his Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Science (1919), The Concept of Nature (1920), and The Principle of Relativity (1922).
When Whitehead was 63 years old and nearing retirement, he was appointed professor of philosophy at Harvard University, and he embarked on the third and, in many ways, most important of his careers. To his achievements as a logician, mathematician, and philosopher of science he added his works as a metaphysician. His major works of this period are his Science and the Modern World (1925), Process and Reality (1929), and Adventures of Ideas (1933). What motivated Whitehead to write these books was his conviction that scientifi c knowledge had arrived at a point in its history that called for a new scheme of ideas to reflect more adequately the new developments in science. Since scientifi c thought always relies on some scheme of ideas, he said, the importance of philosophy is to make such schemes explicit so that they can be criticized and improved. Though his chief speculative work, Process and Reality, is a massive and intricate statement, Whitehead acknowledges in the preface that “there remains the final reflection, how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.” Thus, his metaphysical writings combine bold and creative speculations tempered with a sensitive humility. In 1937 Whitehead retired but continued to live near Harvard Yard until his death in 1947 at the age of 87.
The Error of Simple Location
Whitehead was convinced that Newtonian physics is based on a fallacy—what he called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness . Newton followed Democritus in assuming that the nature of things consists of individual bits of matter existing in space. What is fallacious about this? Whitehead says that to say that a bit of matter has simple location means that, in expressing its spatiotemporal relations, it is adequate to state that it is where it is in a definite region of space and throughout a definite duration of time, apart from any essential reference of the relations of that bit of matter to other regions of space and to other durations of time.
Against this view Whitehead argues that “among the primary elements of nature as apprehended in our immediate experience, there is no element whatsoever which possesses this character of simple location.” The concept of an isolated atom, he says, is the product of intellectual abstraction. He admits that by a process of abstraction we can “arrive at abstractions which are the simply-located bits of material.” But these abstractions, by definition, represent the lifting out of a thing from its concrete environment. To mistake the abstraction for the concrete is the error that Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness . Such things as instants of time, points in space, or independent particles of matter are certainly helpful concepts for scientific thought. However, when we take them as descriptions of ultimate reality, they are distortions of concrete reality.
When it came to giving his own account of concrete reality, Whitehead developed a novel form of atomism . He sought to draw out the implications of the recent developments in quantum physics, the theory of relativity, and evolution. His units of reality differed from the atoms of Democritus and Newton in two ways: (1) in their content and (2) in their relations to each other. Whitehead discarded the word atom because historically this term meant that the content of an atom is hard, lifeless matter and that, being hard, atoms never penetrate each other. Hence their relations to each other are always external. In place of the term atoms, Whitehead therefore substituted the term actual entities or its equivalent actual occasions . Unlike lifeless atoms Whitehead’s actual entities are “chunks in the life of nature.” As such, they never exist in isolation but are intimately related to the whole field of life that throbs around them. Whereas atomistic materialism gives us a mechanical view of nature, Whitehead’s notion of actual occasions permits us to view nature as a living organism . Thus, whether we speak of God or “the most trivial puff of existence,” there is the same principle of life in all things, for “actual entities are the final real things of which the world is made up.”
Whitehead saw in our own self-consciousness a good example of an actual occasion. He felt that the “direct evidence as to the connectedness of [my] immediate present occasion of experience with [my] immediately past occasions, can be validly used to suggest . . . the connectedness of all occasions in nature.” Because an actual occasion is not a material thing, it is best understood as an experience. These occasions do not exist; they happen. The difference is that merely to exist implies no change, whereas to happen suggests a dynamic alteration. Whitehead’s actual occasions represent continually changing entities, a change that comes about through the input of entities on each other. Consider what occurs when a person has an experience. We usually think that in this case there is, on the one hand, a permanent subject and then, or the other, something “out there” that the subject experiences. Whitehead argues that the subject and the object are both in a continual process of change and that every experience the subject has affects the subject. If it is true, as Heraclitus said, that we cannot step into the same river twice, it is also true that no person can think the same way twice, because after each experience he or she is a different person. And this is true of all of nature as it consists of actual occasions or aggregates of actual occasions. Thus, if all of reality is made up of actual occasions—drops of experience—nature is a throbbing organism undergoing constant change throughout. Says Whitehead, “The universe is thus a creative advance into novelty. The alternative to this theory is a static morphological universe.”
Whitehead drew on his theory of actual occasions to account for the relation of body and mind and also to account for the presence of feeling and purpose in the universe. He believed that Democritus had not satisfactorily described how it is possible to have sensation, feeling, thinking, purpose, and life in a universe consisting solely of lifeless material atoms. Nor could Descartes ever join together his two substances—thought and extension. Leibniz did recognize that from lifeless matter it was impossible to derive life, and so he described nature as consisting of monads. Though they resembled the atoms of Democritus in some ways, Leibniz thought they were individual “souls,” or centers of energy. Although the Leibnizian monad was a somewhat more satisfactory concept than the atom of Democritus, Whitehead considered it inadequate. Specifically, although Leibniz believed that monads undergo change, this change did not involve any truly novel process—no evolution, no creativity—but only the running of its predetermined course. By contrast, Whitehead’s actual entities have no permanent identity or history. They are always in the process of becoming. They feel the impact of other actual occasions and absorb them internally. In this process actual occasions come into being, take on a determinate form or character, and, having become actual occasions, perish. To “perish” signifies that the creativity of the universe moves on to the next birth and that in this process an actual occasion loses its unique character but is preserved in the flow of the process. Perishing, Whitehead says, is what we mean by memory or causality—that with the passage of time something of the past is preserved in the present.
We do not ever experience a single isolated actual entity, but only aggregates of these entities. He calls an aggregate of actual entities either a society or a nexus (plural nexu-s ) in which the entities are united by their prehensions . These are some of the novel words Whitehead invented to explain his novel ideas. He writes, “In the three notions—actual entity, prehension, nexus—an endeavor has been made to base philosophical thought upon the most concrete elements in our experience. . . . The final facts are, all alike, actual entities; and these actual entities are drops of experience, complex and interdependent.” Whitehead visualized reality as a continual process in which actual entities are constantly becoming—a process in which what an actual entity becomes depends on how it becomes. His emphasis is on the notion of creativity as the fundamental characteristic of the process of nature. Creativity is the ultimate principle by which the many enter into complex unity. If we took each actual entity separately, we should have a disjoined universe, but the creative unity of the many constitutes the conjoined universe.
Whitehead uses the term prehension to describe how the elements of actual entities are related to each other and how these entities are further related to other entities. Nothing in the world is unrelated. In a sense every actual occasion absorbs, or is related to, the whole universe. Actual entities are brought together by the creative process into sets, or societies, or nexu- s. In this process of becoming, actual entities are formed through prehension. Every prehension, Whitehead says, consists of three factors: (1) the “subject” that is prehending, (2) the “datum which is prehended,” and (3) the “subjective form,” which is how the subject prehends the datum. There are various species of prehensions: positive prehensions, which are termed feelings, and negative prehensions, which “eliminate from feeling.” The subjective forms, or the ways data are prehended, are of many species, including emotions, valuations, purposes, and consciousness. Thus, for Whitehead, emotional feeling is the basic characteristic of concrete experience. Even in the language of physics it is appropriate to speak of feelings, for physical feelings are the physicist’s idea that energy is transferred. Both physical feelings and conceptual feelings are positive prehensions, or internal relations of the elements of actual entities.
The distinction between physical and conceptual feelings does not imply the older dualism of body and mind. It is, of course, still meaningful to use the terms body and mind . But Whitehead insists that to assume that these terms imply a basic metaphysical difference, as Descartes said existed between his terms thought and extension, is to commit again the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. This fallacy, you will recall, is committed when one mistakes an abstraction for the concrete. Both body and mind are, for Whitehead, societies, or nexu-s—they are sets of actual entities. The only concrete reality is an actual entity, but actual entities can be organized into different kinds of societies, such as body and mind. But in each case the actual entities possess the same characteristics, namely, the capacity for prehension, for feeling, for internal relations. Body and mind are both abstractions in the sense that their reality depends on the peculiar organization of the actual entities. Hence, body and mind are not permanently or ultimately different. To speak of the body as an abstraction is similar to speaking of a political body as an abstraction where only the individual citizens are the concrete reality. Whitehead insists that “the final facts are, all alike, actual entities,” and all of these are capable of being interconnected in a stream of experience.
We might ask at this point just how Whitehead accounts for the underlying process of reality. That is, what is the process of creativity that brings actual entities into being and organizes them into societies and preserves what to our experience appears as the endurance of things? Here Whitehead’s thought displays a strong Platonic influence. What makes an actual entity what it is, he says, is that the entity has been stamped with a definiteness of character by certain eternal objects . These eternal objects, resembling Plato’s Forms, are uncreated and eternal. They are patterns and qualities, such as roundness or squareness, greenness or blueness, or courage or cowardice. An actual occasion acquires a definite character (and not other possible characters) because it selects these eternal objects and rejects those . Hence, an actual event is constituted by the togetherness of various eternal objects in some particular pattern.
Eternal objects, Whitehead says, are possibilities, which, like the Platonic Forms, retain their identity independent of the flux of things. He describes the relation between the eternal object and an actual entity as ingression, which means that once the actual entity has selected an eternal object, the latter ingresses, that is, stamps its character on the actual entity. Thus, “the functioning of an eternal object in the self-creation of an actual entity is the ‘ingression’ of the eternal object in the actual entity.” Simple eternal objects stamp their character on actual entities, whereas complex eternal objects give definiteness, or the status of fact, to societies or nexus.
To speak of eternal objects as possibilities required that Whitehead describe how and where these possibilities exist and how they become relevant to actual occasions. Since only actual occasions exist, what is the status of eternal objects? Whitehead designated one actual entity as being timeless, and this entity he called God. For him God is not a creator; he is “not before all creation, but with all creation.” God’s nature is to grasp conceptually all the possibilities that constitute the realm of eternal objects. This realm of eternal objects differs from Plato’s system of Forms. For, whereas Plato visualized one perfect order for all things, Whitehead’s God grasps virtually unlimited possibilities, “all possibilities of order, possibilities at once incompatible and unlimited with a fecundity beyond imagination.” What makes the creative process of the world orderly and purposive is the availability of eternal objects, of possibilities. These possibilities exist in God as his primordial nature. God, moreover, is the active mediator between the eternal objects and the actual occasions. It is God who selects the relevant possibilities from the realm of eternal objects.
God does not impose the eternal objects on actual entities. Rather, God presents these possibilities as lures of what might be. Persuasion, not compulsion, characterizes God’s creative activity. That God always presents relevant possibilities is no guarantee that actual entities will select them. When God’s persuasive lure is accepted, the result is order, harmony, and novel advance. When it is rejected, the result is discord and evil. God is the ultimate principle striving toward actualizing all relevant possibilities. What we experience as the stable order in the world and in our intuition of the permanent rightness of things shows forth God’s “consequent nature.” “God’s role,” Whitehead says, “lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty and goodness.”
Pragmatist philosophers share the conviction that philosophical theories have little value if they do not make a difference in daily life. Inspired by the language of science, Peirce proposed a pragmatic test that words acquire their meanings from actions of some sort. For example, there would be no difference between a hard thing and a soft thing if they did not test differently. Our beliefs guide our actions, but beliefs fall prey to doubts, and we try to “fix” our beliefs through thought. The methods of tenacity, authority, and reason fail as ways of fixing our beliefs because they all rest on our opinions. Ultimately, it is the method of science that succeeds as it is independent of our opinions, and it is the best way to resolve conflicts between conflicting beliefs.
According to James, pragmatism is only a method of inquiry and not a system of dogmas such as traditional theories of philosophy. As a method for discovering meaning, the meaning of a given theory consists of its practical value, and if it has none that theory is meaningless. As a method for discovering truth, ideas become true if they help us to make successful connections with our experience, for example, my belief that the clock tells the correct time is true insofar as it enables me to show up to work on time. There is thus no absolute standard of truth. In resolving disputes between philosophical theories, we must ask the pragmatic question of which theory fits the facts of real life. With the free will and determinism debate, we must consider the fact that we make moral judgments and judgments of regret: such judgments make sense if we assume free will, but less so if we assume determinism. With the issue of God’s existence or nonexistence, we must consider the potential personal benefit that such belief might bring us. If God’s existence cannot be proven, and belief in God is a live, forced, and momentous option, then we have a right to believe in God based on the personal benefit that such belief might bring us.
Dewey proposed the instrumental theory of knowledge that human thinking is an instrument for solving problems. Acquiring knowledge is a dynamic process, not a fixed and static one where people are spectators of reality, as rationalists and empiricists wrongly believed. We are creatures of habit, Dewey argued, and education is important for changing habits and remolding society. For Dewey, values do not exist as eternal entities, but we discover values the same way that we discover facts, namely, through experience.
Process philosophy challenged the mechanical Newtonian model of nature and proposed instead that reality consists of metaphysical processes of change and development. Bergson held that there are two approaches to knowing a thing. First, we have relative knowledge by viewing it from the outside, which we do through analysis and is what science does. This, however, misrepresents the nature of whatever object it analyzes. Second, we have absolute knowledge by entering into the object and viewing it internally, which we do through intuition, or “intellectual sympathy.” Through intuition, we can understand the process of “duration,” which constitutes the continuous stream of experience in which we live. Evolution, he argued, involves a vital impulse that drives all organisms toward more complicated and higher types of organization. With morality, we need intuition to develop a genuine morality that goes beyond particular cultural groups and extends to the larger field of humanity.
Whitehead criticized a key assumption in traditional analytic reasoning, namely, that facts exist in isolation from other facts; instead, he argued, “connectedness is the essence of all things.” He similarly criticized a key assumption in Newtonian physics that individual bits of matter exist in space; the problem, he maintained, is that so-called isolated atoms are merely the product of intellectual abstraction. Thus, Newtonian physics distorts concrete reality and commits what he called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. True atoms, which he calls “actual entities,” are not lifeless pieces of matter but instead are intimately related to the whole field of life around them.
1. Discuss Peirce’s view that the method of science is a better way to fix our beliefs than the methods of tenacity, authority, and reason.
2. A common criticism of James’s pragmatic theory of truth is that he is saying something is true if it simply makes us feel good. How might James respond to this criticism?
3. Discuss James’s pragmatic analysis of the free will and determinism debate and whether you agree with his conclusion.
4. According to James, many traditional philosophical problems can be answered with pragmatism. Select one such problem—such as external objects, personal identity, the mind–body problem, moral relativism—and evaluate it using James’s pragmatic method.
5. Discuss Dewey’s instrumental theory of knowledge and whether it is any more effective than a rationalist or empiricist account of knowledge.
6. Explain how, according to Dewey, social values are discovered through experience, and are not eternal truths revealed to us through rational thinking.
7. Explain Bergson’s concept of duration, and how it is the stream of experience in which we live.
8. Discuss Bergson’s view that intuition enables us to extend morality beyond particular social groups to humanity at large.
9. Explain Whitehead’s notion of “actual entities.”
10. Peirce, Dewey, James, Bergson, and Whitehead all criticize traditional approaches to knowledge, such as rationalism and empiricism. Explain their specific critiques and what they have in common.