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The Pardshaw Dialogues: Sense Awareness and the Passage of Nature by Dorothy Emmet (ed.)


Dorothy Emmet was professor of philosophy in the University of Manchester from 1947-1966. The following material appeared in Process Studies, pp. 83-145, Vol. 16, Number 2, Summer, 1987. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Introduction, by Dorothy Emmet


The discussions in this special issue took place in the Summer of 1981 under semi-camping conditions in the hostel of an old Quaker Meeting House at Pardshaw in West Cumbria, and were continued in Cambridge in 1984. They were taped, and are reproduced here with only minor amendments, so as to preserve the cut and thrust of the actual conversations. The participants were members of the Epiphany Philosophers group which had produced the journal Theoria to Theory, and they had a concern in seeing how philosophy might contribute to new developments in science. Margaret Masterman had found that reading Whitehead’s Symbolism and The Concept of Nature suggested the kind of philosophical background she was needing for her theory of language. She therefore opened the Dialogues by quoting from The Concept of Nature, and the other participants were invited to say whether they could see a bearing on their own work. There was general agreement that Whitehead’s earlier books, up to and including Science and the Modern World of 1926, would be likely to be more fruitful for this purpose than the later Whitehead of Process and Reality. The earlier Whitehead was closer to the philosophy of science; the difficulties in his views are ones that philosophers of science can recognize. On the other hand, obscurities in the terminology of the later Whitehead, if not in his thought, make it difficult for philosophers of science to see ways in which what he is saying would bear on their own problems. This may be why the work of the later Whitehead has become a world of a special exegetical industry, and one largely closed to other philosophers. Those inside it have been more often concerned to connect his views with theology than with the philosophy of science. (The two Whitehead seminars held in Germany in 1981 and 1983, however, along with some numbers of Process Studies, show a welcome widening of interest).

We have four philosopher-scientists in the Dialogues: Margaret Masterman, developing a new theory of language; Christopher Clarke, a mathematical physicist working out a theory of space; Rupert Sheldrake, who has a hypothesis of "formative causation" as supplementing energetic causation; and Jonathan Westphal, who is working on the philosophical psychology of colour perception. There are two other participants who had been concerned with Whitehead’s thought at certain periods: R. B. Braithwaite had interested himself in Whitehead’s ontology and philosophy of science of the 1920’s, and had, along with Susan Stebbing, discussed aspects of these at meetings of the Aristotelian Society. He had also written a long critical notice of Science and the Modern World for Mind (N.S. xxxv pp. 489-500, 1926). Dorothy Emmet was turned seriously to philosophy by reading Science and the Modern World in 1927, and won a graduate fellowship which enabled her to attend Whitehead’s seminars at Harvard in 1929-1930. This was the time when Process and Reality was coming out, and her early book, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism, was largely a discussion of this. Looking back after more than 50 years, she found she had become increasingly aware of the obscurities in Process and Reality, and of her own failure at that time to see far enough into them. She also had come to think that the work of Whitehead’s middle period merited a fresh look. She has since written two papers which owe much to the discussions in these Dialogues: "Whitehead’s View of Causal Efficacy" in the volume of the proceedings of the Bonn symposium Whitehead und der Prozess-begriff (1984), "Creativity and the Passage of Nature" in the proceedings of the Bad Homberg symposium, Whitehead’s Metaphysik der Kreativität (1987)

There are at least three ways of approaching the Whitehead of the middle period (here meaning in particular the Whitehead of An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge and The Concept of Nature). The first way fastens on the event ontology and connects it with his relativistic view of the derivation of space and time. In this approach sense-perception (a major preoccupation in these Dialogues) will be presented as a three-term relation between a focal ("cogredient") event, another event perceived as a space-time region, and a characterizing property called an "object." This, broadly, is the approach taken by R. B. Braithwaite. A second approach is to look on the earlier Whitehead as the precursor of Process and Reality, and to see the early views as finding their true expression in the late ones. None of the participants adopts this approach. A third approach is when someone gets excited by some feature in the thought of the earlier period, and wants to see if it could be developed, not necessarily in Whitehead’s own way. This is the approach of Margaret Masterman, in connection with her theory of language, and of Jonathan Westphal, in his interest in the relation between the percipient and the perceived, particularly in the case of colour. Chris Clarke latches onto the event ontology, but he is critical of Whitehead’s way of deriving space and time. Rupert Sheldrake had been putting forward a view of the transmission of patterned structures in nature through what he calls "morphic resonance" in "formative causation" (see his book, A New Science of Life: the Hypothesis of Formative Causation). He was invited to see whether Whitehead’s view of a patterned passage of nature could help him about this.

The last Dialogue took place at a later date. In this Margaret Masterman was asked to say more about her theory of language with its Whiteheadian overtones. There had been a number of allusions to this, but, in the earlier Dialogues, Margaret had been mainly concerned to bring out how our participation in the "passage of nature" gives us a bare sense-awareness which is much richer than that presupposed in other empiricist accounts, notably the sense data account. The Dialogue ends with an attempt to look back on what the participants had been trying to do. It would be redundant to recapitulate this here. However, I should like to emphasize the concluding reflection: the time has surely come when those interested in Whitehead should break out of what is largely a closed world of exegesis. If anything in his writings excites them, they should go on from there and develop their own thinking, probably in a very different language. I am sure that this is what he himself would have wished.

Some of Whitehead’s views to which attention is drawn contain difficulties not explicitly brought out in the Dialogues. I shall indicate them for the possible interest of Whitehead scholars.

First, there is the claim that what is given in bare sense-awareness yields a richer empiricism than the sense data views of, for instance, Russell, Moore and Broad. Sense data such as the proverbial yellow patch are here seen as abstractions, segregated from a context where a perceived colour is affected by its background, and by contrasts with its surrounding colours. The reference to background was, of course, a feature of Gestalt psychology; the importance of contrast is brought out by Jonathan Westphal, drawing on recent work on colour perception. Moreover, what is given in primitive sense-awareness is not only the contemporary scene as such; it is affected by what was seen in the immediate past, and anticipates what is about to be seen in the immediate future. It comes in a duration with temporal as well as spatial spread, not in an instantaneous but in a specious present. The phrase "specious present" was William James’; its importance in the Whiteheadian view is that it marks the general character of primitive sense-awareness, and can be the character of the sense-awareness of what Whitehead calls "low grade organisms," affected by their immediate past and directed to how they are going to act in the immediate future. It is not a matter of mental interpretation.

This temporal spread in sense-awareness is connected with what Whitehead sees as our primitive experience of the "passage of nature" -- that something is going on. Awareness of the passage of nature shows its taking a rhythmic and reiterative form. This is something which particularly impressed Margaret Masterman.

Another of Whitehead’s views which the participants find congenial is that one should think "homogeneously" and not "heterogeneously" about nature. Epistemologically, this spells realism; a realism in which so-called secondary qualities are not subjective experiences, and one in which so-called "scientific objects" (in Whitehead’s time the standard example was the electron) are not merely theoretical entities. The "bifurcation of nature," which is here repudiated, could consist in either or both of these forms of dualism. To think homogeneously is to think in a realist way about what is given in sense perception.

But this need not be a naive realism; a mental response may be a response to what is given in the external world, but it can also produce its own abstract images of what is given, and this applies to "scientific objects." They are not conventional constructions, but are controlled through the reception of causal influences from the environment which provide clues as to what is going on. "Scientific objects" are theoretical entities, in that the abstract mathematical picture they present is very different from anything which could be given in sense perception; hence the plausibility of views which only give them meaning within the context of a scientific theory. Nevertheless, their use within the theory enables predictions of future perceptions to be made. Whitehead holds that this is possible because the scientific objects are mathematical representations of relationships in natural processes connected causally with experienced relationships. These representations are models of what is going on in the external world, suggested originally by what is given in sense perception, and coming back to this for verification. The realist grounding of perceptions comes from their being derived causally from experiences of processes going on in external nature.

Whitehead (as also Russell) avoids the bifurcation of nature through a causal view, where perceptions arise out of physiological responses. So sense experience is described in psycho-physiological language. In Whitehead’s later works, the psycho-physiological language becomes all-embracing, being stretched both up into conscious mental experiences and down into the ostensibly inorganic world. This distinguishes Whitehead’s avoidance of mental-physical dualism from contemporary forms of physicalism, where the basic type of explanation is in principle that of physics. Here the basic type is psycho-physiological, and this language becomes definitive for his generalized view of "organism," leading to a view of fundamental natural entities which are said to have "feelings." This suggests "pan-psychism," a description which Whitehead rejected but which, given the trend of his later writings, it is hard to avoid. The participants in these Dialogues do not, however, follow him into the language of the later books.

Those who consider this language to have been unfortunate may be encouraged by the Dialogues to go behind it and look again at the generalized notion of "organism" which seemed to be emerging in the earlier books. In Science and the Modern World Whitehead was suggesting a view of organisms which might bridge the gap between the physical and biological sciences, without physics appearing to be swallowed up in biology or biology, and still more psychology, being reduced to physics. This generalized notion of organism does not preclude real differences of functioning at different levels. But it is characterized in a way which, I believe, might have marked out a different route for the "philosophy of organism" from that taken in Process and Reality. I shall briefly indicate how I see this.

We start from a passage of nature divisible into natural units. In the early ontology of events the divisions could be made by arbitrary cuts (see D.E. in Dialogue I). The substitution (not consistently maintained) of "organisms" for "events" indicated a recognition that the basic units should be natural units, not merely slices of the passage of nature. The most primitive natural unit given in perception is characterized by what Whitehead calls a "non-uniform object." A uniform object would be a macro-object such as a chair, where any temporal slice could still be seen as a chair. A non-uniform object is one which needs a certain time spread to be seen as that object at all. A wave would be an instance; it can only be a wave from peak to trough and back to peak. There is no wave at an instant, or in a shorter time span than that needed for its wave length.

Organisms are non-uniform objects which are essentially units functioning with spatio-temporal spread. Here the notion of "functioning" is added to the temporal factor. "Functioning" is a mode of activity contributing to the continuing maintenance of some ongoing complex process. There are two aspects of this to which attention is drawn in the Dialogues. One is that the process is maintained in a reiterating pattern. A pattern reiterated over time can be segmented into phases. In Science and the Modern World Whitehead had said that the fundamental physical entities appear to have a "vibratory" character. As such, they would be non-uniform objects. Turning from the micro to the macro world, biological organisms also exist through reiterating phased processes, notably in the circadian rhythms such as alternating waking and sleeping. The suggestion is that to exhibit reiterative pattern may be a feature of nature at different levels, and an ingredient in the generalized notion of an organism.

But an organism is not only a route of rhythmic reiterative activity. It is a natural unit functioning in an environment, and it maintains its patterned activities through responding to signals from outside. It is also an open system, dependent on an intake of energy from the environment, and in turn dissipating energy into it. The energy maintains the system by being channeled in a structure which limits its dissipation. The structure at one stage acts like a template providing the form to be taken at the next stage. This is generally put in terms of "information" or "instructions." These terms are, of course, latent metaphors; what happens is more like the imprinting of a pattern than the conveying of a "message."

The notion of organisms as carriers of form -- or rather, as only existing in patterned processes -- was a preoccupation of the participants in the Dialogues, largely because of Rupert Sheldrake’s book. He himself, however, wants to maintain that formative causation is a separate force from energetic causation, and this would not be a Whiteheadian view. But he had been indirectly indebted to Whitehead through the influence of Waddington’s approach to the study of organisms. My own opinion is that it was Waddington above all who saw ways in which Whitehead’s views could be of service to biologists: that is to say, the views of the 1920’s, before they were transmuted into the language of "feelings" about which Waddington himself had reservations. Waddington genuinely carried forward applications of Whiteheadian ideas in his own work, and in his own language, and his death was a grievous loss to these studies. We must recover what we can from some of last reflections, notably his contributions to Towards a Theoretical Biology.

Waddington’s paper in Towards a Theoretical Biology follows on from one by Brian Goodwin ("A Statistical Mechanics of Temporal Organization in Cells") in which Goodwin looks at the question of how ordered systems like cells, and still more macro-organisms, supervene on the movements of their constituent molecules, and how one is to close the gap between molecular biology and cell physiology. He sees a possible link in the oscillations in the biochemical control circuits. "Cells have not selected against dynamic oscillations in their control circuits, but have made use of them to organize the staggering complexity of cellular dynamics into a well-ordered rhythmic sequence of biochemical processes. The oscillations are thus regarded as the dynamic basis of temporal organization in cells" (148). Waddington picks this up in his comment (179ff). Limit cycle frequencies in oscillatory systems in biology may form templates in which forms can be fixed in structures which provide instructions for the next stage. That these mark processes in which a system follows a reiterative sequence of states is a feature of Whitehead’ s earlier generalized view of organisms, through what in Science and the Modern World he called "organic mechanism.

This oscillatory character may be necessary, but it is of course not a sufficient condition for living organisms, as distinct from the fundamental particles studied in physics. A living organism is a developing system sustained through multiple interactions over periods of time with other systems in the environment, giving interchanges of energy. Waddington says that it was his early studies of Whitehead which got him out of a view of single strands of linear causation (e.g., one gene-one trait), to a view of multiple interactions sustaining a "concrescence." This is a "growing together" over time of a balance of interlocking processes. These interlocking processes can not only restore an equilibrium after disturbance, but can sometimes establish a new pathway of reactions, which Waddington calls a "chreod." The pattern is then one of "homeorhesis" -- the sustaining of a stabilized pathway -- as distinct from "homeostasis," the restoration of equilibrium after disturbance.

Whitehead’s own view of the interaction of organisms in their environment has, however, difficulties in which Waddington did not involve himself. Some of these come out in the Dialogues. First, there is the view of "prehensions," of causation as not so much a transmission from the past as a picking up of a character, and in the later works, a "feeling" of an immediate predecessor by an actual entity in the present, when the predecessor has perished. I do not think that commentators on Whitehead’s later work have dealt satisfactorily with what this does to the notion of the onward thrust of the passage of nature. I express a worry about it in Dialogue 4, but on the whole the participants were not concerned with this particular problem, which belongs to the later Whitehead.

They were concerned, however, with a second difficulty over the multiple interactions between organisms. Whitehead does not allow causal interaction between contemporaries (he defines "contemporary as causal independence; this is not derived from a relativity view of transmission of light signals from distant bodies). This causal independence of contemporaries makes it difficult to see how there can be simultaneous action and reaction, for example, in collisions. Whitehead would say that a reaction is a later action; an actual entity can inherit a feeling from its predecessor, but it cannot itself collide with a contemporary. The disputants, particularly R. B. Braithwaite and Chris Clarke, trace the impasse over interactions to the lack of a satisfactory view of space in the later books. Here space is in effect a perceptual space allowing for measurement; the "extensive continuum" is a domain of possible relationships. It is not a space in which moving bodies can collide and interact. Whitehead might retort that to ask for this is to ask for the reinstatement of the Newtonian absolute space. In the middle books he was concemed to reject this for a space projected from a point of origin, and so relativistic. But the question of the space of interactions between moving bodies, as distinct from the space of measurement, was not, I think, resolved. In the later books this becomes a crucial question when the key notion of the ontology is not that of event, but of organism.

Thirdly, there is the question of the status of the moving bodies themselves, especially where these are macro-organisms. For the later Whitehead the ultimate entities were micro-entities, and the macro-organisms with which we are familiar were "societies," ordered complexes of these micro entities. In one sense this is surely right; it is, as he says, a "cellular" view, where cells themselves are societies of the ultimate actual entities. But if all activity resides in these latter, how should we describe the activities of macro-organisms, including what appears to be their goal directed activity? For Whitehead the goal directed activities are those of innumerable momentary actual entities. This raises the question of coordination. Whitehead suggests that in "high grade organisms" where there is strong coordination, this is secured by the influence of some "presiding actual entity," possibly lurking somewhere in the interstices of the brain.

I shall not comment on this latter day version of the "soul ," except to say that it is hard to see how anything which exists only for a very short interval and then perishes would be able to carry out such complicated presidential functions. In any case, we want to be able to describe the self-directedness of a whole macro-organism, which seems to be more unified than an association in a society of individually self-directed micro-organisms, even with a "president." The notion of a "society" is being made to carry too much weight. Whitehead takes the notion of "organism" as the most profitable one for designating the natural units, but, by making macro-organisms societies of micro-organisms and giving directed activity only to these, he loses the distinctive unity of macro-organisms. A macro-organism is indeed a nested structure of small components with coordinated rhythmic activities, but the notion of "society" does not do justice to its goal directedness.

These are, however, problems for Whitehead scholars concerned with the later works. The participants in the Dialogues were wanting to look at what appeared fruitful lines of thought in the earlier works. They were impressed by the basic notion of the passage of nature, individuated into routes showing reiterative patterns whose phases marked contrasts and emphasis points. These emphases and contrasts in a patterned flow are said to be features of which we are aware in sense experience, giving epistemologically a richer kind of empiricism than that given by the sense data view. The nature indicated by such an empiricism can only be experienced temporarily and dynamically, and its rhythmic character is shown in the natural units of physics as well as those of biology.

In this Introduction I have tried to give my personal impression of the ways in which these Dialogues fasten on some features of Whitehead’s thought in his middle period. All the participants might not agree with my presentation. In particular, R. B. Braithwaite might have reservations about some of the suggested developments and applications, since his interest was in the event ontology and the derivation of space and time in the earlier works. These were also Chris Clarke’s interests; he was taking Whitehead’s views as giving points of comparison for the different view of space which he was developing. Rupert Sheldrake’s concern with the transmission of form was a Whiteheadian question, though he did not find help in Whiteheadian answers. Jonathan Westphal, with his view of the importance of contrasts and changing contexts in the visual perception of colour, and Margaret Masterman with her view of a reiterative flow in the auditory perception of spoken speech, were the two who were able to connect most closely with Whitehead’s conception of sense-awareness of the patterned flow in the passage of nature.

For myself, and speaking personally, I find a moral significance in a view of on-going processes, perhaps a total life span, in which temporal divisions can indeed be drawn, but as stages in which what happens at one stage can have a "feedback" correcting the process for the next stage. Thus happenings in the past, especially those in which one has gone badly wrong or suffered, need not only be painful memories or causes of damage. Nor need one just be stuck with programmed patterns which repeat themselves over and over again -- a kind of Nietzschean "eternal recurrence of the same" -- with performance becoming decreasingly effective as the organism runs down. There is indeed reiteration, and we largely depend on it; but living organisms can vary the pattern. And, importantly, painful experiences in a past stage can be utilized in a later stage by what has been discovered through them; experiences can be evaluated for what they give to an ongoing process, and not only by what they were at the time. So "souffrir passe, avow souffri ne passe jamais" need not be a depressing thought; it is a way of saying that the process can be enriched.

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