Chapter 1: An Attempt To Get Back To Whitehead’s Earlier Stance
Participants: Margaret Masterman leading; R. B. Braithwaite, Dorothy Emmet, Rupert Sheldrake, and Jonathan Westphal participating.
MM: The object of these sessions is to see whether the ontological view of the early Whitehead can be used to open up new areas of science. These sessions are not about commentating on Whitehead; they are not about process theology; they are not about the part of Whitehead’s work that post-dates the essay on symbolism. They are about what Whitehead thought when he was still a scientist. The young Richard Braithwaite published papers and listened to Whitehead about this in the period to which we want to go back, so he can set what Whitehead said in the context of controversies which surrounded it. The young Dorothy Emmet got herself a studentship to go and learn from Whitehead; we have three people as well who are trying to open up new research areas in science and who want to see if this vision of the early Whitehead couldn’t help in doing this. Rupert can be asked whether The Concept of Nature can be used to provide a philosophic background for his notion of "morphic resonance," and I want to see whether the concept of a bare sensory awareness in a passage of nature couched in terms of durations can sufficiently produce boundaries so as to yield breath groups in spoken speech and semantic reiterations in paragraphs and language; and Chris wants to know whether Whitehead’s starting point can be used, though not in Whitehead’s manner, to develop a realistic conception of space and time. So we are going to need sessions on each of these. I suspect that there is also a relevance to some of what Jonathan Westphal is currently saying about colour.
So here are four innovators in scientific areas who feel that Whitehead’s early vision just might provide them with a philosophical base, and two experts to guide them.
I myself began to investigate this matter wrong way on. That is, I was impatient. The experimentalist in me said, "What bits of all this can I take that will support my view of language so that I will be able to write a philosophic book on language?". I will now read you the first paragraph of my proposed book to show why you can’t just do this; that is, take bits and pieces out of a man who has a fundamental vision:
Whitehead’ s view of language -- which he himself never develops, not even in the essay on Symbolism -- is an almost incidental result of his view of sense-awareness, and of the primacy (once you start from sense-awareness) of the absolutely fundamental process which he calls "the passage of nature."
That was what I wrote. Then I discovered, of course, that I couldn’t go on without knowing a great deal more about the passage of nature.
So next I copied out a piece of The Concept of Nature:
Nature is a process. As in the case of everything directly exhibited in sense-awareness, there can be no explanation of this characteristic of nature.... It is an exhibition of the process of nature that each duration happens and passes. The process of nature can also be termed the passage of nature. (CN 53)3
This passage shows how difficult it is just to dip into the philosophy of the early Whitehead. However, I still did not see this. I merely commented:
Whitehead fails here to say, though, that the passage of nature can also resonate: one part can act on another across space and time. This capacity to resonate would account not only for Newton’s action at a distance and Sheldrake’s morphic resonance; even more it accounts in the observed "one-dimensional" system of language for the well-known phenomena of flash forwards and recapitulations.
So then I thought, "I must really find out more about the early Whitehead’s passage of nature," and I struggled to do that; but this was again a mistake.
It was a mistake because again I was impatient. I wanted to find out what this thing was without finding out what was the philosophic stance behind it.
DE: You mean what is "the passage of nature"?
MM: Yes, and the unit of it, which is a duration. I saw that Whitehead was defining families of durations (using the logic of classes) in order to get the constructions of scientific space and time, and defining boundaries of durations, moments, instantaneousness, and abstractive sets. But I still didn’t understand ‘why": only something about "how."
RB: You mean why Whitehead went in for this?
MM: Why he went in for this. Later I had a talk with Richard which brought me a lot of light, because he said Whitehead was gunning for the Russell view of sense data on which I was philosophically brought up. But at that time, the controversy which I did manage to get hold of, which is in Whitehead, is that between Whitehead’s vision of the passage of nature and what he calls, and with much justification (writing, of course, in 1920), "materialism":
It can be summarized as the belief that nature is an aggregate of material and that this material exists in some sense at each successive member of a one-dimensional series of extensionless instants of time. Furthermore the mutual relations of the material entities at each instant formed these entities into a spatial configuration in an unbounded space. It would seem that space -- on this theory -- would be as instantaneous as the instants, and that some explanation is required of the relations between the successive instantaneous spaces. The materialistic theory is however silent on this point; and the succession of instantaneous spaces is tacitly combined into one persistent space. This theory is a purely intellectual rendering of experience which has had the luck to get itself formulated at the dawn of scientific thought. It has dominated the language and the imagination of science since science flourished in Alexandria, with the result that it is now hardly possible to speak without appearing to assume its immediate obviousness.
But when it is distinctly formulated in the abstract terms in which I have just stated it, the theory is very far from obvious. The passing complex of factors, which compose the fact which is the terminus of sense-awareness, places before us nothing corresponding to the trinity of this natural materialism. This trinity is composed (i) of the temporal series of extensionless instants, (ii) of the aggregate of material entities, and (iii) of space which is the outcome of relations of matter. (CN 71)
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The theory which I am urging admits a greater ultimate mystery and a deeper ignorance. The past and the future meet and mingle in the ill-defined present. The passage of nature, which is only another name for the creative force of existence, has no narrow ledge of definite instantaneous present within which to operate. Its operative presence which is now urging nature forward must be sought for throughout the whole, in the remotest past as well as in the narrowest breadth of any present duration. (CN 73)
I now saw this was a vision more different from the materialist one than any philosophic vision I had seen before. So the only thing to do was to go right to the heart of the matter and see why Whitehead was led to take that stance. So I went back to the beginning again (you see, I had kept flying to go backwards from my field, as I think any scientist would, instead of from the beginning to the end of Whitehead’s book). So then I felt I had to find out more about durations and their characteristics and how they build up, and that wasn’t good enough -- because the question immediately arises, why have durations at all? That was when I had the conversation with Richard, who said Whitehead was gunning for Russell’s theory of sense data. So then I went back to the beginning of the book yet once more, hoping this time round I would really see what made Whitehead take the stance he did.
This is Whitehead’s preparatory remark, and it connects with what I have just read:
The modern natural philosophy is shot through with the fallacy of bifurcation. . . . Accordingly all its technical terms in some subtle way presuppose a misunderstanding of my thesis. It is perhaps as well to state explicitly that if the reader indulges in the facile vice of bifurcation not a word of what I have here written will be intelligible. (CN vi)
This baffled me, because I did not know what Whitehead meant by "bifurcation," but I deferred this point, because Whitehead then goes on to say what he is aiming for:
What do we mean by nature? We have to discuss the philosophy of natural science. Natural science is the science of nature. But – "What is nature?" (CN 3)
And here, I felt, at last I have got to the heart of the matter. This is Whitehead’s starting point, "What is nature?"
Here follows Whitehead’s first, not very satisfactory, but highly original, attempt to define nature: he is working up to establishing the possibility of two different ways of thinking about nature:
The first of these is thinking homogeneously about nature:
Nature is that which we observe in perception through the senses. In this sense-perception, we are aware of something which is not thought and which is self-contained for thought. This property of being self-contained for thought lies at the base of natural science. It means that nature can be thought of as a closed system whose mutual relations do not require the expression of the fact that they are thought about.
Thus in a sense nature is independent of thought. . . . we can think about nature without thinking about thought. I shall say that then we are thinking "homogeneously" about nature. (CN 3; italics added)
Note that this is a scientist’s remark, not a philosopher’s one. The second way is thinking heterogeneously about nature:
Of course it is possible to think of nature in conjunction with thought about the fact that nature is thought about. In such a case 1 shall say that we are thinking ‘heterogeneously" about nature Natural science is exclusively concerned with homogeneous thoughts about nature. (CN 3; italics added)
According to me, everything that follows stems from this initial distinction between homogeneous and heterogeneous thinking about nature.
Now I think that in making this distinction Whitehead makes a good and original initial point; because it is the fact that philosophers, by instinct, always think heterogeneously about nature, whereas scientists, equally by instinct, don’t, which, more than any one thing, makes the philosophy of science so unreal a subject for actual research scientists.
So Whitehead is going to think about what nature is going to mm out to be when you think about it homogeneously, as scientists so. And since nature (see above) is that which we perceive in sense-perception, Whitehead has obviously now got to go on to see what sense perception itself, seen homogeneously, look/like.
He proceeds to do this by making a distinction between "sense-perception" and "sense-awareness."
Sense perception has in it an element which is not thought. It is a difficult psychological question whether sense-perception involves thought; and, if it does involve thought, what is the kind of thought which it necessarily involves. Note that it has been stated above that sense-perception is an awareness of something which is not thought. Namely, nature is not thought. (CN 3)
However, in fact, when we think about nature, scientifically, we are no more thinking about the nature of sense-awareness than we are thinking about ourselves thinking about nature So Whitehead is going to increase and widen the notion of thinking homogeneously:
We are thinking "homogeneously" about nature when we are thinking about it without thinking about thought or about sense-awareness, and we are thinking "heterogeneously" about nature when we are thinking about it in conjunction with thinking either about thought or about sense-awareness or about both. (CN 5)
Thus Whitehead, by making the two distinctions which he has made, has got himself into an extremely strong position from which to embark on a new philosophic enterprise of generalizing from the direct deliverance of sense-awareness. Any philosopher who is going to try and prevent him doing this has got to say either that nature is not that which is given to us in sense-awareness (which no philosopher would say), or that it is not possible to talk about nature homogeneously (which no scientist would say), or that there is no such thing as sense-awareness, which nobody, especially not in 1920, would say.
So Whitehead is now launched; simply because he has been that bit more perceptive and realistic about how natural scientists really talk and think about nature than either Russell or C. D. Broad, his contemporaries, were. And this is just the sort of way in which cardinal philosophic advances are in fact made; by being more perceptive and more realistic than others are about something which is always taken for granted.
Having got himself so well launched, Whitehead now goes on to try and distinguish (actually not very well, since he is bound by his own work with Russell in writing Principia Mathematica) between what thought asserts that the world is like, and what sense-awareness shows it to be like, and I think he has far too narrow a notion of thought. He then begins to point out the loss of content when you go from sense-awareness to thought. By thought he means theoretic, scientific thought, not imaginative thought, nor yet analogical scientific speculation.
No characteristic of nature which is immediately posited for knowledge by sense-awareness can be explained. It is impenetrable by thought, in the sense that its peculiar essential character which enters into experience by sense-awareness is for thought merely the guardian of its individuality as a bare entity. Thus for thought "red" is merely a definite entity, though for awareness "red" has the content of its individuality. The transition from the "red" of awareness to the "red" of thought is accompanied by a definite loss of content, namely, by the transition from the factor "red" to the entity "red." This loss in the transition to thought is compensated by the fact that thought is communicable whereas sense-awareness is incommunicable. (CN 13)
If people think the initial vision of Whitehead, which reveals such a different vision of nature as given to us in bare sense-awareness, ought to be explored -- and if it is explored you get a very new, very wide set of possibilities for science -- then one ought to start by flying to find out what his units of the passage of nature are -- namely these "factors" which he also calls durations.
DE: No, a "factor" isn’t the same as a duration. A factor is anything which plays a determinate part in the whole complex fact which is nature as disclosed in sense-awareness. But there is a passage (CN 107) where he says there are always two factors in this whole complex fact: one is the "duration," which is all nature as present to a particular standpoint (roughly, the state of the contemporary world), and the other is the standpoint, the "here," which he calls a percipient event. No doubt we shall have to come back to what he means by this when we come to talk about what he means by "events" and "durations." What is relevant at this stage is that nature as perceived gives a "now," and the percipient gives a "here," but this is not a distinction between what is really there in nature and what is produced by a mind -- what he calls "the bifurcation of nature."
MM: The other thing I did go into in my study, is this great fallacy of the bifurcation of nature. Perhaps Dorothy or Richard could give an exposition of this, and after that we could get down to the question of the nature of durations.
RB: I haven’t anything to say about the bifurcation of nature; I think it is irrelevant to the question about "passage."
MM: I think that too, which is why I didn’t go into it. But nevertheless Whitehead himself says what is dividing people philosophically is the question of the bifurcation of nature.
DE: I think he brought it in because he wanted to get everything into a single passage of nature. I think he was attacking the conception that you had mind here and you had nature there, and you had sense-perception as being aware of things in nature, but with mind doing a great deal of interpreting and doctoring, and producing theoretic entities which are not in nature. Moreover, you had the distinction of primary and secondary qualities, with the secondary qualities not out there in nature at all. This philosophy goes back a very long way; and it means that ultimately you have an agnosticism as to what nature itself is like; you can then go all the way with Berkeley’s refusal to distinguish primary and secondary qualities, so that in the end the primary qualities get into the mind as well. And if you are then left with a substance as a "something I know not what" out there, Berkeley says what is the use of even having that. So Whitehead is wanting to put everything back into the passage of nature which is given, and say that there are various ways in which events in nature can be conditions of, for instance, perceptions of colour; but he doesn’t want to have mind right outside nature.
MM: I have a not too long passage which we might look at on this:
In my previous lecture I criticized the concept of matter as the substance whose attributes we perceive. This way of thinking of matter is, I think, the historical reason for its vague introduction into science, and is still the vague view of it at the background of our thoughts which makes the current scientific doctrine appear so obvious. Namely, we conceive ourselves as perceiving attributes of things, and bits of matter are the things whose attributes we perceive. (CN 26)
This is where he says something which I would like to bring to Rupert’s attention; it is science itself which has upset materialism.
In the seventeenth century the sweet simplicity of this aspect of matter received a rude shock. The transmission doctrines of science were then in process of elaboration and by the end of the century were unquestioned, though their particular forms have since been modified... The result completely destroyed the simplicity of the "substance and attribute" theory of perception. What we see depends on the light entering the eye. Furthermore we do not even perceive what enters the eye. The things transmitted are waves or -- as Newton thought -- minute particles, and the things seen are colors. Locke met this difficulty by a theory of primary and secondary qualities. Namely, there are some attributes of the matter which we do perceive. These are the primary qualities, and there are other things which we perceive, such as colors, which are not attributes of matter, but are perceived by us as if they Were such attributes. These are the secondary qualities of matter. (CN 26-27)
So what Whitehead is essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, insofar as they are real are real in different senses -- one reality would be entities such as electrons which are the entities of speculative physics; the other reality would be what is given us in actual sense-awareness. There would then be two natures; one is the abstract nature of scientific speculation, the other the nature of what is actually given in sense-awareness.
RB: Is this Whitehead or Masterman?
MM: Whitehead. He is protesting against bifurcation between the nature which is the apprehending awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness. Another way of putting the theory which Whitehead is protesting against is to bifurcate nature into two divisions.
What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream. . . . (CN 30)
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The reason why the bifurcation of nature is always creeping back into scientific philosophy is the extreme difficulty of exhibiting the perceived redness and warmth of the fire in one system of relations with the agitated molecules of carbon and oxygen, with the radiant energy from them, and with the various functionings of the material body. Unless we can produce the all-embracing relations, we are faced with a bifurcated nature; namely, warmth and redness on one side, and molecules, electrons and ether on the other side. The two factors are explained as being respectively the cause and the mind’s reaction to the cause. . . . (CN 32)
There is a diatribe against saying that the basic entities of science are merely conventional entities that aren’t really there, but help explain what is really there.
Then again there are formulae which assert that there are entities in nature with such and such special properties, say, for example, with the properties of the atoms of hydrogen. Now if there are no such entities, I fail to see how any statements about them can apply to nature. For example, the assertion that there is green cheese in the moon cannot be a premise in any deduction of scientific importance, unless indeed the presence of green cheese in the moon has been verified by experiment. The current answer to these objections is that, though atoms are mervly conceptual, yet they are an interesting and picturesque way of saying something else which is true of nature. But surely if it is something else that you mean, for heaven’s sake say it. Do away with this elaborate machinery of a conceptual nature which consists of assertions about things which don’t exist in order to convey truths about things which do exist. (CN 45)
But all this about die bifurcation of nature leaves me in a complete muddle.
DE: Whitehead is protesting against having two distinct realities, mind and nature, and in doing so he is attacking two kinds of bifurcation. One is that which puts secondary qualities -- colors, sounds, smells -- in the mind, so that, although they give us clues as to what is going on in nature, they are not themselves in nature. The other kind of bifurcation, and I think the more interesting, is the difference between nature as perceived, and the scientific entities, such as electrons, which are held to explain what goes on in nature. One way of dealing with the status of these entities is to say that they are theoretical constructions, but Whitehead doesn’t take this way, because he wants them to be causal controls of what is perceived and he holds causes are efficacious, which theoretical entities can’t be. So these entities must be real elements in nature. Their properties are the most general ones in natural processes, that is to say, of actual processes in nature. Of course there are problems about how you relate these properties to the properties of what we perceive: the agitation of the molecules to the redness of the fire. We shall no doubt be coming back to what it is we actually perceive. In the controversies of the time when Whitehead was writing, this was generally said to be a sense-datum, and, as Margaret said earlier, he was gunning for Russell’s view of sense-data.
RS: Before leaving bifurcation, can we ask Richard why Whitehead was quarrelling with Russell over sense-data?
RB: What I consider Whitehead was resisting in the Lake Representative Theory was that there were two sets of properties, sensible properties and material properties, one in the mind somehow representing the other. Whitehead’s method of dealing with this, as I saw it then, was that the Representative Theory of Perception gave rise to the notion of sets of things which, after Russell’s Problems of Philosophy of 1912, were called sense-data, which were the immediate objects of perception. The problem of physics was to relate other things to these immediate objects of perception, these sense-data. The bifurcation, I take it, that Whitehead was referring to was that, in the ultimate system of things that was produced, in some way the sense-data had vanished. Of course the other standard way of dealing with this, which Mill put forward unsatisfactorily about 1850, was taking the sense-data as ultimate and constructing other things in terms of them -- this, the doctrine usually known as phenomenalism, Whitehead didn’t accept.
There is no bifurcation in phenomenalism. The ultimate things are the sense-data and other things are logical constructions out of them. Russell worked on this, and Ramsey sophisticated the notion of logical construction in terms of theoretical entities. I expounded it in terms of concepts in a deductive system in which the bottom level consists of sense-data, and this was a phenomenalist exposition. The philosophers of science then discussed the relations of the theoretical entities to the bottom layer without assuming they were necessarily sensible. You had then a system with basic elements -- Carnap called them protocol propositions -- without making any assumptions as to what they were. Subsequently it was discussed what the basic elements were. But there is no doubt that the basic elements were propositions about matters of sense. In my book (Scientific Explanation) I treated them as essentially that, but I rather carefully qualified myself as not wanting to discuss this aspect of phenomenalism.
Now, Whitehead didn’t like this sort of approach, and what Whitehead said (I am now going to use his word "events") was that this produced one set of things in terms of material events and another which he called percipient events in the mind. What he wished to say was that it wasn’t a question of one set of events being constructed out of the other. Both existed, and there was a three-termed relation between them and something else he called "objects." It wasn’t a question of one set of events representing another, or (on the phenomenalist view) one set being constructed out of the other. The process of perception was one in which both sets of events came in, and neither of them separately had properties. The properties were "objects" ("eternal objects").
I myself think this is a view to be considered, though I think it is subject to all the criticisms that can be made to phenomenalism and some extra ones as well -- I think Susan Stebbing agreed with me on this. Susan Stebbing and I commented on Whitehead in 1924 and 1925 in the Aristotelian Society papers. If I were writing a book on Whitehead I should put forward and discuss how much this interpretation was a distortion of Whitehead; I don’t believe there is any other view as definite as this that can be got out of him.
For me, the interesting thing about Whitehead is that he maintained and defended an event and not a substance ontology. This is related to durations because Whitehead’s durations are events. What I’ve been describing is what I take to be his view of perception, the relation of the mental and the physical, his solution of the problem of primary and secondary qualities left us by Locke, and it is opposed to phenomenalism, which said secondary qualities were the basic data and primary qualities are to be constructed out of so-called secondary qualities. Carnap and Ramsey felt this and sophisticated the notion of construction. Whitehead does not do this. He has constructions of space and time out of events; that is a different matter. Whitehead produced this other theory which is more complicated -- it is essentially a dyadic relation, between two sorts of events, percipient and material. and he complicates it by expressing this dyadic relation in terms of what he calls eternal objects.
MM: He starts from a different place.
RB: This is the Braithwaite view of Whitehead. I tortured myself spending a summer writing a review (for Mind) of Science and the Modern World and I think Ramsey agreed with it, and Stebbing. But, as we all know, Whitehead is a very difficult writer. As I have said, if I were writing a book on Whitehead I should put this forward and discuss how much it could be accepted as a view of Whitehead.
MM: Once you have two sets of events, though, you are within the ordinary climate of thought. The whole point of the philosophy of durations, which starts from the sort of perception an organism which wasn’t human might have, is that you are not within the ordinary climate of thought.
RB: I have given the original philosophy of perception I have found in Whitehead. I have not found anything else. Masterman may find something different.
MM: My thesis is that in language human beings and possibly also other organisms (mutatis mutandis) are reacting to bare sense-awareness, and mimicking this with reiterating durations without explicitly going through thought; and therefore language, at its roots, is very different from what Subject-Predicate Aristotelian thought assumes that it is.
RB: When I wrote my review of Science and the Modern World I found no reference in Whitehead to language.
MM: No. Nevertheless, in order to get a real model of the roots of language, I should have thought it was very necessary not to start with this Aristotelian Subject-Predicate thought, which is for me as for Whitehead a local accident. And all this about dyadic and triadic relations between events isn’t so different from what you get in ordinary thought. This is for me the shock of saying that Whitehead was just disagreeing with Russell.
DE: I’d like to come back to this view of perception. What Richard has put is a phenomenalist alternative to Whitehead, and I think Whitehead’s view differs from phenomenalism in two crucial ways. As Richard said, phenomenalism has fastened on the secondary qualities as basic in how you verify, and has theoretical entities as constructions by which you link perceptions of secondary qualities. Whitehead is claiming we have a direct perception not only of secondary qualities but also of durational qualities. He wants to say that transitions are directly experienced, which means that instead of starting off from comparatively clear and distinct sense-data we start from these experiences.
Russell has a revealing remark in his Portraits from Memory. He is groaning over how they were brought up on Hegel, where "the universe is more like a pot of treacle than a heap of shot," and he says "the universe is exactly like a heap of shot: -- i.e. made up of different items."
It was Whitehead who was the serpent in this paradise of Mediterranean clarity. He said to me once, ‘You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noonday, I think it is like what it seems like in the early morning when one first wakes from deep sleep.’ I thought his remark horrid, but could not see how to prove that my bias was any better than his. At last he showed me how to apply the technique of mathematical logic to his vague and higgledy- piggledy world and dress it up in Sunday clothes that a mathematician could view without being shocked. This technique which I learnt from him delighted me, and I no longer demanded that the naked truth should be as good as the truth in its mathematical Sunday best. (41)
So this is how Russell, in his mind, tamed Whitehead. But the point is that Whitehead was saying you start from vaguer kinds of sensation.
MM: Why "vaguer"?
DE. I hesitated over the word "vaguer." These kinds of sensation are certainly more dynamic. In considering them, you always have to come back to the notion of "passage." Anything that is fixed as clear and distinct is the result of an abstraction. This means that Whitehead thinks we have a very deep experience of transition, of something changing into something else, something imprinting its form on something else; and so I think his particular kind of radical empiricism (a term of William James’ which Whitehead liked) is a very different kind of empiricism from that which starts from secondary qualities as sense-data and constructs the world out of these.
MM: Broad used to give a whole lecture on a sense-datum as an undifferentiated round green patch. This is what you might see through a microscope; not what you really see.
DE: What you experience in the early morning when you wake from a deep sleep is something coming into clarity. Also he has to defend the view that we actually experience transitions.
MM: Well, Whitehead’s view now has the science of unicellular organisms behind it. People who make cybernetic models of unicellular organisms now consider the unicellular organism as being imprinted and re-imprinted on by external changing stimuli. So the unicellular organism reacts directly to transition. There is no persistent thing that it sees.
RB: Russell and Whitehead really lived before Monet was appreciated in England. The contrast is between pictures with definite colour boundaries and Monet’s pictures where no such boundaries can be found. Whitehead was seeing the world as Monet saw it.
DE: The Whiteheads’ apartment in Cambridge, Mass, had a number of abstract pictures. Mrs. Whitehead was an artistic character and had been brought up in France.
RB: Yes, but Monet’s pictures weren’t abstract; they were pictures of, for example, St. Mark’s at Venice, without any definite boundaries.
MM: You picked up what they were of.
RB: So did Whitehead when he woke up.
DE: But the picking up isn’t the primitive primary awareness.
MM: How do you do the picking up? Not by clicking back into a Russell sense-data awareness.
DE: You pick up through our primitive sensory awareness of processes going on with reiterated characters which we can notice. He is gunning for the idea that there is any such thing as awareness of an instantaneous present. He gets at points and instants through his Method of Extensive Abstraction, but they are not objects of awareness as instantaneous. The objects of awareness themselves always have an extension.
MM: Why do you put back "objects"? If you do, you are clicking back. There are primarily re-imprints, reiterations, recognitions, but surely no "objects."
DE: Incidentally I think Whitehead’s own use of the word "object" is extremely confusing, since he uses it (as I was not just now) for the character of an event, but don’t let’s go into that now.
MM: Look, if we want to go into how Whitehead may help in opening up new areas in science, it is vital not to go into all the confusions as well as all the insights.
RB: As far as I understood Whitehead, what you were aware of was a relational situation. It is moving, "kinetic" is the word, not "dynamic."
RS: "Dynamic" implies "forces.’
MM. There is a perfectly good sense of "dynamic" in which you can say the situation is dynamic not static.
RB: "Dynamic" is here a vogue word. "Transition" -- or rather "change" is the word, we should use.
DE: I would like to know what Jonathan would say about putting the "secondary qualities" back into nature, as termini in sense-awareness of a process that physicists describe in terms of vibrations and so on. Do you think there can be a continuity between the physicist’s account and the perceiver’s account, or do you think there is a bifurcation no one can get over?
JW: I don’t think there is, but you have to remember what Newton was doing. He was concerned with the chromatic aberration telescope lenses. When he looked at a pin point star he got a coloured image on his lens, and he had to get rid of that, so he was very interested in the angles of refraction. His problem was how to get rid of the color.
MM: And yours is how to get it back.
MM: We are concerned with getting back into nature what is really there and not being told that in one way or another it is an illusion.
RB: Whitehead was starting at a level above that -- not of illusion. He says there is a problem presented by the Locke view of secondary qualities. Very few, except Eastern people, would say "illusion." They would say "secondary qualities aren’t as real as," or something like that.
JW: Physicalists are committed to saying these sensations of heat are illusions.
RB: Physicalists wouldn’t deny we have these sensations.
JW: I want to say that what is perceived in them is this change.
RB: I would agree, because I am phenomenalistically inclined. I get into trouble for saying that electrons don’t really exist.
MM: Jonathan, could you say something about how you see this applying to colour?
JW: There has been an assumption that the perception of colour depends on the quantity of light entering the eye. But that assumption is actually false because as the light changes during the day, the colours are seen the same. What actually happens is that the eye reads the light as standard and sees how the object affects that light: it reads the relation between the light coming in and coming off, and reads the other colours in relation to a chosen colour and in relation to its own adaptive state. So the direct perception would be of a change, and you can’t just take the spectral composition of the light.
RB: This is the ‘constancy’ phenomenon, which applies also to size.
JW: As Whitehead says, you can’t take the past for granted. Your perception goes from it into the present.
DE: That is fundamental to his view. The present is always experienced as coming from the past.
JW: If it wasn’t, you would get the colour wrong.
MM: This deeper conception of nature is what we have got to go for, because it opens up new areas for investigation.
DE: Whitehead called his view a radical empiricism because it claimed to be more radical than sense-data empiricism, as going back to a more primitive kind of experience. He claims this is actual experience, not a theoretical addition. We actually experience these transitions and modifications and adaptations, and what then becomes clear and distinct is the doctored thing, not the basic one. But then we come to the passage you read about there not being additions of thought, and in this passage he seems to be going counter to what he had said about sense-perception including an element of thought. But the point is that it includes an element which is not thought, and it is this which meets us in primitive sense-awareness. It is difficult to report on, because as conscious beings we tend to turn sense-awareness into sense-perception and there is a strong case for saying that all sense-perception involves elements of interpretation. Whitehead would meet this contention through having a hierarchy from sense objects to perceptual objects, to physical objects, to scientific objects, with more and more abstraction and interpretation, at each stage and he can only get away with what he says about pure sense objects if he makes them far more primitive than one normally thinks sense objects are. What we normally call sense objects have to become his "perceptual objects."
MM: There is no objection to having this more primitive awareness.
DE: There is no objection if we can substantiate that we have it.
MM. In all science you presuppose something that isn’t thought that you are Investigating.
DE: And this isn’t, as for Hegel, a very rudimentary kind of judgement. It is something perceived. Russell puts the problem very well in his Enquiry into Meaning and Truth where he talks about the "pure datum." Russell there says it is difficult to say "here we have a pure datum," because we have judgement coming in all the time, but nevertheless, the notion is something you must hold on to, if there is to be a difference between perception and thought. The opposition is between the view that the further back you go, you go to more and more rudimentary judgements and the view that there is a real difference between perception and thought; and also that you don’t in perception come down to a (Kantian) inchoate manifold which you work up with conceptual schemes, but that you come down to something given in sense-awareness about which you can say a great deal more than that.
MM: You can not only say more about it. You can say it is something that different areas of reality, like developing organisms and speakers of languages, react to, and in these areas you can see the reactions it causes.
So Whitehead really has an alternative vision of sense-awareness and it is to that awareness which Rupert is trying to show nature reacting, and I to show language reacting, and Jonathan (I think) trying to show colour perception reacting; and Chris, possibly, will be saying a theory of space and time must be related to this. The awareness is there because it has effects but, because conceptually we ignore it, these tend to be effects we haven’t looked at. If the phenomenalists are helping us break the mould that prevents us looking at these, we will have them as allies -- if not, forget phenomenalism this time round, as we need this more primitive, but also more proliferating and glorious vision of perception, in order to get a basis for these new areas, where we are trying to investigate something which Isn’t the contribution of the mind, and which you can refer to so as to verify or falsify your experiment. So the next advance should be to get back to what we really experience.
DE: We have been concerned in this discussion with how Whitehead was trying to get close to the concrete in what we actually see and hear.
RS: What I have got out of it, put very simply, is that Whitehead’s criticism of the existing scientific view is not that it is pragmatic, or empirical, or based on sense-data, but that it is based on a kind of theory about the nature of the world, and that this has imparted a view of time and space and how the mind works. This is a theory we have brought in; scientists when they are thinking about the world, though they may believe they are thinking homogeneously, are imparting a whole lot of assumptions. We have got to get behind all that to what we really see.