If you don't know who he is, that's okay. Not many do. Along with Bertrand Russell (from whom this poor blog filched its title), he was the author of the Principia Mathematica (1910, 1912, 1913, 1927), a massive, monumental work that sought to "discover" (that's a problematic word in the philosophy of mathematics, Platonism v. Intuitionism or some such, but that's beside the point) the logical basis, i.e., the foundation, of all maths. That is, they attempted to set out a logically consistent, coherent, and complete set of axioms and rules of operation which could be used to prove all mathematical propositions; the true ones that they're True and the false ones that they're False. If you took a symbolic logic course in college—you know with truth values and truth tables, p's and q's, tautologies, 'and's 'or's 'if-then's and 'not's, formal syntactic propositions, rules of introduction and substitution, and the like, then you dipped your toes in the waters Whitehead and Russell attempted to navigate and circumscribe. In other words, they sought to show through logical proofs how we know that '1 + 1 = 2' is always and everywhere True.
Kurt Gödel subsequently proved that no such system can at once be both consistent and complete, that is to say, mathematics is not reducible to formal logic. To prove every possible statement is either True or False, that is to say there are no contradictions such that some statement is at once both True and False under the axioms and derivation rules presented, one must step outside the system. To prove that the system is complete (in other words that it will generate every possible True statement) likewise requires a statement that cannot be generated by the system. In other words, resort, ultimately, must be made to meta-language, i.e., language about language. The popular book Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979) by Douglas Hofstadter attempted to bring some this esoterica to the intelligent reader.
The move from thinking about the foundation of mathematics to thinking about the foundation of the natural sciences, or metaphysics, was Whitehead's next with Process and Reality. By nature (or at least habit) a systematizer, one would expext Whitehead to analyze the system that properly generates (True) propositions about Reality (i.e., science) in the same way he did mathematics. Listen:
"Every science must devise its own instruments. The tool required for philosophy is language. Thus philosophy redesigns language in the same way that, in a physical science, pre-existing appliances are redesigned. It is exactly at this point that the appeal to facts is a difficult operation. This appeal is not solely to the expression of the facts in curent verbal statements. The adequacy of such sentences is the main question at issue. It is true that the general agreement of mankind as to experienced facts is best expressed in language. But the language of literature breakes down precisely at the task of expressing in explicit form the larger generalities—the very generalities which metaphysics seeks to express.
"The point is that every proposition refers to a universe exhibiting some general systematic metaphysical character. ... Thus every proposition proposing a fact must, in its complete analysis, propose the general character of the universe required for that fact. There are no self-sustaining facts, floating in nonentity. ...
"One practical aim of metaphysics is the accurate analysis of propositions; not merely of metaphysical propositions, but of quite ordinary propositions such as 'There is beef for dinner today,' and 'Socrates is mortal.' PR, Chapter I, Section V, p. 11.Part of the problem, he tells us, has to do with with the nature of our object language (the language we use to describe objects in the real world): its Subject/Predicate structure is essentially misleading. Whitehead has an almost extreme distrust of language, including the propositional form. Propositional form forces on us an inevitable dualism between thought and thing. After Aristotle, there are Beings, or Substances, about which we can posit Attributes, i.e., nouns and adjectives: 'Socrates is mortal,' 'the sky is blue,' 'the mountain is tall,' 'the ship of Theseus is wooden, 'etc.
Essentially, for Whitehead, verbs and adverbs should predominate in our analysis. Privileging Becoming over Being, Process over Substance, is like saying when the sky is blue, it isn't the sky that's central, it's the blue. The point is not a grammatical one or even a scientific one. It's a metaphysical one. The sky when it is blue is not the same sky as it is when it's gray. Like Heraclitus's river, it is never the same sky twice. For Whitehead, everything is a verb, an event, a happening interconnected with every other event or happening, rather than a solitary thing. Here:
"That 'all things flow' is the first vague generalization which the unsystematized, barely analysed, intuition of men has produced. It is the theme of some of the best Hebrew poetry in the Psalms; it appears as one of the first generalizations of Greek philosophy in the form of the saying of Heraclitus; amid the later barbarism of Anglo-Saxon thought it reappears in the story of the sparrow flitting through the banqueting hall of the Northumbrian king*; and in all stages of civilization its recollection lends its pathos to poetry. Without doubt, if we are to go back to that ultimate, integral experience, unwarped by the sophistications of theory, that experience whose elucidation is the final aim of philosophy, the flux of things is one ultimate generalization around which we must weave our philosophical system.
"At this point we have transformed the phrase, 'all things flow,' into the alternative phrase, 'the flux of things.' In so doing, the notion of the 'flux' has been held up before our thoughts as one primary notion of further analysis. But in the sentence 'all things flow,' there are three words—and we have started by isolating the last word of the three. We move backward to the next word 'things' and ask, What sort of things flow? Finally we reach the first word 'all' and ask, What is the meaning of the 'many' things engaged in this common flux, and in what sense, if any, can the word 'all' refer to a definitely indicated set ofthese many things?
"The elucidation of meaning involved in the phrase 'all things flow' is one chief task of metaphysics. ...
"...The other notion dwells on permanences of things." PR, Chapter X, Section 1, p. 208.Using his own rather abstruse vocabulary, Whitehead refers to 'events' as "actual entities" or "actual occasions". For him, an electron is an event. These are all general terms, of course. In the current state of knowledge, we might posit that the so-called 'god particle', Higgs Boson, is an actual occasion, in fact the limiting event. Differential mass emerges from a nexus of the interactions of these particles. But we might also say that the entire physical universe is likewise an event comprised of a vast multiplicity of other events, all the way down to the Higgs Boson level. For Whitehead, an event or an occasion is the act, or process, of becoming. Each such occasion is unique because it creates something new—something unique emerges—but also because it is formed from a unique nexus of events.
If Aristotle's classic logic ('All men are mortal,' 'Socrates is a man,' hence 'Socrates is mortal.') has been dwarfed, essentially been rendered a footnote by the great analytic logics of Leibniz, Frege, Whitehead and Russell inter alia, then, by a similar token and in similar fashion, Aristotle's classic metaphysics of substance has been superceded by Whiteheadian metaphysics of flux. Yes, you need nouns. But nouns act and are acted upon in reality. One might even say buffetted about. And all nouns are interconnected. It is this process of relating and buffetting that is primary and, thus, should be the primary concern of metaphysics, according to Whitehead.
Leibniz (1646-1716), the first great analytic philosopher (and co-inventor/-discover with Newton of the calculus), anticipated this, to a certain extent, in his Monadology. His monads are solitary individuals whose courses are pre-determined by God. They do what they do and encounter whom or what they will, expressing their "essences" blindly. They are "windowless", helpless to act on behalf of themselves because God, having set them in motion, has created them to exemplify this "best of all possible worlds."
For Whitehead, actual occasions, or events, are at the apex of his ontology. Actual occasions, or events, do what they do and encounter whom or what they will, but they select, to varying extents, how the things they interact with affect them. As Donald Sherburne has pointed out, they are "all window." The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 852.
Pure individuality is an illusion in a Whiteheadian reality, for we (each event) are defined by our relations not only with our environment but with others. In Whitehead's definition, everything "feels" everything else. And, through a process of "selection" (which may or may not be conscious, depending on the event and actual entities involved), each event either takes up into itself or rejects each other event. He calls this process "prehension". Human perception is one, fairly complex form of prehension. But so is photosynthesis. So is the eight ball going into the side pocket upon being struck by the cue ball. Every event is the prehension of other events.
Whitehead, like Leibniz before him, gets into the weeds of theism. For him, God, too, is an actual occasion, an event which prehends the universe (at least in one aspect of the Whiteheadian deity). In fact, a process theology such as Charles Hartshorne's makes a great deal of (philosophical) sense to me (or at least it did when I was in grad school). But, to my mind, a process philosophy does not necessarily require supernature.
(to be cont'd)
*“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.” Venerable Bede (673-735).