Whitehead Quotations

Philosopher and mathematician A. N. Whitehead (1861 – 1947) became a metaphysician of first order. His writing style can be necessarily convoluted, especially in his magnum opus, ‘Process and Reality’, yet clear gems of lines are strewn throughout his works. Some of these gems I present here (in no order):
alfred north philosopher process philosopher philosophy metaphysics logic mathematics russell organism griffin hartshorne fechner paulsen bergson henri panpsychism theology god panpsychism psntheism panentheism chalmers nagel mind consciousness body brain actual entity occasion subjective aim

A. N. Whitehead


Philosophy is an attempt to express the infinity of the universe in terms of the limitations of language.’ (Autobiog.)


The doctrines which best repay critical examination are those which for the longest period have remained unquestioned.’ (MT)


[I]n the development of intelligence there is a great principle which is often forgotten. In order to acquire learning, we must first shake ourselves free of it. We must grasp the topic in the rough, before we smooth it out and shape it.’ (MT)


[E]rror is the mark of the higher organisms, and is the schoolmaster by whose agency there is upward evolution. For example, the evolutionary use of intelligence is that it enables the individual to profit by error without being slaughtered by it.’ (PR)


The condition for excellence is a thorough training in technique. Sheer skill must pass out of the sphere of conscious exercise, and must have assumed the character of unconscious habit … [but] the training which produces skill is so very apt to stifle imaginative zest … Beyond that [trained] limit there is degeneration … The moment of dominance, prayed for, worked for, sacrificed for, by generations of the noblest spirits, marks the turning point where the blessing turns into a curse. Some new principle of refreshment is required. The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order. Life refuses to be embalmed alive. The more prolonged the halt in some unrelieved system of order, the greater the crash of the dead society.’ (PR)


Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.’ (SMW, ch. VI)


[O]ne characterization of importance is that aspect of feeling whereby a perspective is imposed upon the universe of things felt … perspective is the dead abstraction of mere fact from the living importance of things felt. The concrete truth is the variation of interest; the abstraction is the universe in perspective; the consequent science is the scheme of physical laws which, with unexpressed presuppositions, expresses the patterns of perspective as observed by average human beings.’ (MT)


The terms morality, logic, religion, art, have each of them been claimed as exhausting the whole meaning of importance. Each of them denotes a subordinate species. But the genus stretches beyond any finite group of species.’ (MT)


Sense perception is the triumph of abstraction in animal experience. Such abstraction arises from the growth of selective emphasis. It endows human life with three gifts, namely, an approach to accuracy, a sense of the qualitative differentiation of external activities, a neglect of essential connections. These … constitute the focus of consciousness, as in human experience.’ (MT§4)


Science investigates the past, and predicts the future in terms of the forms of past achievement … [but] science can never foretell the perpetual novelty of history.’ (MT)


[O]ur exposition is nothing else than the expansion of the insight that power is the basis of our notions of substance … Our experience starts with a sense of power, and proceeds to the discrimination of individualities and their qualities … actuality is in its essence composition. Power is the compulsion of composition … The essence of power is the drive towards aesthetic worth for its own sake. All power is a derivative from this fact of composition attaining worth for itself. There is no other fact. Power and importance are aspects of this fact. It constitutes the drive of the universe. It is efficient cause, maintaining its power of survival. It is final cause, maintaining in the creature its appetition for creation.’ (MT)


No philosopher is satisfied with the concurrence of sensible people, whether they be his colleagues, or even his own previous self. He is always assaulting the boundaries of finitude.’


Science can find no individual enjoyment in nature: Science can find no aim in nature: Science can find no creativity in nature; it finds mere rules of succession … science only deals with half the evidence provided by human experience … The disastrous separation of body and mind which has been fixed on European thought by Descartes is responsible for this blindness of science.’ (MT, l. VIII)


[T]he essence of great experience is penetration into the unknown, the unexperienced … If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken. But the purpose of philosophy is to rationalize mysticism: not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coördinated.’ (MT, l. III…IX)


The history of thought is a tragic mixture of vibrant disclosure and of deadening closure. The sense of penetration is lost in the certainty of completed knowledge. This dogmatism is the antichrist of learning.’ (MT)


The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the great wealth of general ideas scattered through them. His personal endowments, his wide opportunities for experience at a great period of civilization, his inheritance of an intellectual tradition not yet stiffened by excessive systematization, have made his writings an inexhaustible mine of suggestion.’ (PR)


The novel observation which comes by chance is a rare accident, and is usually wasted. For if there be no scheme to fit it into, its significance is lost …  Millions had seen apples fall from trees, but Newton had in his mind the mathematical scheme of dynamic relations … millions had seen animals preying on each other, vegetables choking each other, millions had endured famine and thirst, but Charles Darwin had in his mind the Malthusian scheme.’ (FR, ch.3)


It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom, but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body.’ (PR,ch.IV§5)


[T]he notion of the self-contained particle of matter, self-sufficient within its local habitation, is an abstraction. Now an abstraction is nothing else than the omission of part of the truth … This general deduction from the modern doctrines of physics vitiates many conclusions drawn from the application of physics to other sciences, such as physiology … For example, when geneticists conceive genes as the determinants of heredity. The analogy of the old concept of matter sometimes leads them to ignore the influence of the particular animal body in which they are functioning.’ (MT)


Time is known to us as the succession of our acts of experience, and thence derivatively as the succession of events objectively perceived in those acts. But this succession is not pure succession: it is the derivation of state from state, with the later state exhibiting conformity to the antecedent. Time in the concrete is the conformation of state to state, the later to the earlier; and pure succession is an abstraction from the irreversible relationship of settled past to derivative present.’ (SME)


Reason can be compared to the force of gravitation, the weakest of all natural forces, but in the end the creator of suns and of stellar systems:–those great societies of the Universe.’ (SME)


Reason is inexplicable if purpose [final cause] be ineffective … A satisfactory cosmology must explain the interweaving of efficient and of final causation.’ (FR,ch.1)


Plato’s notion [of an original chaos] has puzzled critics who are obsessed with the Semitic theory of a wholly transcendent God creating out of nothing an accidental universe. Newton held the Semitic theory. [His] Scholium made no provision for the evolution of matter – very naturally, since the topic lay outside its scope. The result has been that the non-evolution of matter has been a tacit presupposition throughout modern thought.’ (PR)


There is no one behaviour system belonging to the essential character of the universe, as the universal moral ideal … Thus morality does not indicate what you are to do in mythological abstractions. It does concern the general ideal which should be the justification for any particular objective.  The destruction of man, or of an insect, or of a tree, or of the Parthenon, may be moral or immoral.’ (MT)


There is a strong intuition that speculative understanding for its own sake is one of the ultimate elements in the good life. The passionate claim for freedom of thought is based upon it. Unlike some other moral feelings, this intuition is not widespread. Throughout the generality of mankind it flickers with very feeble intensity. But it has been transmitted through the generations in a succession of outstanding individuals who demand unquestioned reverence.’ (FR, ch.II)


Scientific reasoning is completely dominated by the presupposition that mental funtionings are not properly part of nature. Accordingly it disregards all those mental antecedents which mankind habitually presuppose, in guiding cosmological functionings. As a method this procedure is entirely justifiable, provided that we recognise the limitations involved. … The gradual eliciting of their definition is the hope of philosophy.’ (MT, ch. 8)


The disease of philosophy is its itch to express itself in the forms, “Some S is P,” or “All S is P.”‘ (MT)


The essence of power is the drive towards aesthetic worth for its own sake. All power is derivative from this fact of composition attaining worth for itself. There is no other fact. Power and importance are aspects of this fact. It constitutes the drive of the universe. It is efficient cause, maintaining its power of survival. It is final cause, maintaining in the creature its appetition for creation.’ (MT, ch.6)


The molecules within an animal body exhibit certain peculiarities of behaviour not to be detected outside an animal body. In fact, living societies [organisms] illustrate the doctrine that the laws of nature develop together with the societies [systems] which constitute an epoch.’ (PR, 161/2)


Each monadic creature is a mode of the process of “feeling” the world, of housing the world in one unit of complex feeling, in every way determinate. Such a unit is an “actual occasion”; it is the ultimate creature derivative from the creative process.’ (PR, Part II, ch. II, §VI)


It is a false dichotomy to think of Nature and Man. Mankind is a factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of Nature.’ (AI, 99)


See also: A summary of A. N. Whitehead’s metaphysics