On Popper’s Understanding of Whitehead

by Juliana Geran Pilon

Juliana Geran Pilon is assistant professor of philosophy at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia 30322.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 192-195, Vol. 8, Number 3, Fall, 1978. 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.


Pilon challenges Karl Popper’s criticism of Whitehead’s “wander[ing] off to such questions as the (Platonic) collectivist theory of morality.” Pilon suggests that Popper leapt to this conclusion a bit too hastily.

While John Locke’s admonition against the "blind precipitancy" of passion should always guide the serious philosopher, an excess of zeal may well be forgiven when it involves the kind of innocent fallout that inevitably accompanies genius -- as is the case with Karl Popper. Sir Karl’s The Open Society and Its Enemies has become by now a classic argument for rationalism, as eloquent a defense of scientific tolerance as most believers in the law of noncontradiction are likely to want. Some exegetes, however, may take exception to Popper’s interpretation of what he calls Whitehead’s "wander[ing] off to such questions as the (Platonic) collectivist theory of morality" (OSE 248). I propose to show that Popper leapt to this conclusion a bit too hastily; for the passage he quotes by way of illustration does not permit an unequivocal reading. The contrary interpretation that I suggest has the added advantage of consistency with a rather straightforward 1939 article by Whitehead entitled, quite simply, "An Appeal to Sanity," whose message leaves uncharacteristically little room for confusion.1

The following passage Popper cites is certainly vague: "Morality of outlook is inseparably conjoined with generality of outlook. The antithesis between the general good and the individual interest can be abolished only when the individual is such that its interest is the general good" (PR 23). Collectivist overtones, surely. But are they inescapable? No one who has read Immanuel Kant closely can deny that "the general good" may be interpreted as referring to whatever is in accordance with the general law of morality:2 for Kant, only an autonomous will is a truly good will, only what is in accordance with the first principle of morality is truly (morally) good. The sentences immediately preceding the passage quoted by Popper may be understood to further support this deontological interpretation of Whitehead:

The selectiveness of individual experience is moral so far as it conforms to the balance of importance disclosed in the rational vision; arid conversely the conversion of the intellectual insight into an emotional force corrects the sensitive experience in the direction of morality. The correction is in proportion to the rationality of the insight. (PR 22f)

Surely Kant would not disagree. It is the rational vision alone that is truly good, and our individual actions are moral only when they conform to the good will. Insofar as the autonomous will is rational, moreover, it has precedence over our particular wills, thus being able to lead them in a moral direction. When one completes the sentence that Popper quotes only in part it reads as follows:

The antithesis between the general good and the individual interest can be abolished only when the individual is such that its interest is the general good, thus exemplifying the loss of the minor intensities in order to find them again with finer composition in a wider sweep of interest: (PR 23)

That "wider sweep of interest" may well refer to the requirements of a categorical imperative, the command of the general or universal law of morality. For it is unlikely that Whitehead meant by "the general good" merely "the good of the collective," especially in light of his words later on the same page:

Religion should connect the rational generality of philosophy with the emotions and purposes springing out of existence in a particular society . . . [it] is the translation of general ideas into particular thoughts, particular emotions, and particular purposes; it is directed to the end of stretching individual interest beyond its self-defeating particularity." (Emphasis added)

And surely Kant would applaud the opposition to particular, heteronomous wills in favor of rational generality. No "collective interest" is here in sight.

One can only speculate as to the reason why Popper quoted only half a sentence when its continuation might have helped to elucidate its meaning. To be sure, Popper himself humbly admits the possibility that he may have misunderstood the direction of Whitehead’s thought. After deploring the fact that many rationalists took to irrationalism -- with disastrous ethical implications, according to Popper -- he concludes that "[t]his is what happened to Whitehead if I am not quite mistaken" (OSE 231). Alas, it seems to me that quite mistaken he is.

For consider Whitehead’s piece "An Appeal to Sanity," which contains thoughts meant to gladden the heart of any classical liberal:

each human being is a more complex structure than any social system to which he belongs. Any particular community life touches only part of the ijature of each civilized man. If the man be wholly subordinated to the common life, he is dwarfed. His complete nature lies idle, and withers. Communities lack the intricacies of human nature. The beauty of a family is derivative from its members. The family life provides the opportunity; the realization lies in the individuals.

Thus social life is the provision of opportunity. If that opportunity be conceived as complete subordination to the limitations of one community, human nature is dwarfed. (ESP 65)

And more directly still:

There always remains solus cum solo. We have developed a moral individuality; and in that respect we face the universe -- alone.

This is the justification of that liberalism, that zeal for freedom, which underlies the American Constitution and other various forms of democratic government.

It is the reason why the ‘totalitarian’ doctrine is hateful. Governments are clumsy things, inadequate to their duties. (ESP 65, original emphasis)


By way of conclusion, I feel compelled to reveal the hidden purpose behind my seemingly innocent exercise in speculative exegesis. That purpose does not involve primarily a defense of Whitehead’s liberal credentials -- I have attempted to do that elsewhere (1). Nor do I rest content in the mere spotting of an historical error in Popper, for Sir Karl’s (as, indeed, Whitehead’s) place in history is secure on grounds far more weighty than a reputation for faithful reiteration of the words written by one’s predecessors (important as such accuracy may be). Rather, I am intrigued by the possibility of reading in both Whitehead and, interestingly, Kant himself, precisely the kind of collectivist ethics that Popper so rightly abhors. One may thus find a very unusual sort of philosophical gymnastics performed with the categorical imperative, using it to defend collectivist ends, in a recent work on ethics by the Romanian philosopher Ioan Grigoras, Principles of Socialist Ethics (Bucharest: Editura Politica, 1974). But that is my topic for another article presently in gestation.



OSE -- Karl R. Popper. The Open Society and Its Enemies, volume 2: Hegel and Marx. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

1. Juliana Geran Pilon. "Whitehead and Solzhenitsyn on Freedom and Harmony." The Intercollegiate Review 12/2 (Winter, 1976-77), 99-103.



1Two recent articles, one by George V. Pixley, "Justice and Class Struggle: A Challenge for Process Theology" (PS 4:159-75) and another by Clark M. Williamson, "Whitehead as Counterrevolutionary? Toward a Christian-Marxist Dialogue," (PS 4:176-86) relate Whitehead to the Marxist tradition. But Pixley believes that "Whitehead’s own philosophical investigations into culture and civilization, if not counterrevolutionary, are open to appropriation for counterrevolutionary purposes" (PS 4:174), while Williamson disagrees. "Process thought," he writes. "seems singularly well equipped to develop a theology of work, in the full Marxist sweep of the term: man’s self-creativity in society" (PS 4:1785; original emphasis). It is unclear what Williamson has in mind. To be sure, there are those who believe that Marx has squared the circle, having allowed for maximum individual freedom and for collectivism at the same tune. I take Pixley’s side (in a manner of speaking) and shall proceed to suggest some counterrevolutionary ideas.

2 It is not my purpose here to claim that Whitehead’s ethics is Kantian in all, even most respects; I only suggest that some of his pronouncements are by no means inconsistent with a Kantian interpretation. Sylvia Ann Pruitt, in her dissertation An Inquiry into the Ethical Implications of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (Emory University, 1970), relates Whitehead and Kant as follows: after first citing from Kant -- "What else then can freedom of the will be but autonomy, that is the property of the will to be a law to itself?" -- she writes that "[w]hat Kant speaks of as autonomy and attributes to the will, Whitehead calls self-causality and attributes to all actual occasions" (p. 181).

Unfortunately, Pruitt is handicapped by what seems to be an unduly simplistic view of Kantian ethics. She writes: "[T]he Kantian view that duty is discerned (and, therefore, one is relatively certain he is acting ethically) only when the action is not one which is pleasing or desired seems unduly harsh" (p. 132). Rather, whether or not an action is pleasing is neither necessary nor sufficient for judging its morality.